“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (1)

10 Jul

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.



If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did.  Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one.  Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources.  Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,”  “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission.  For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.


As Warner says,  the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade.  Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting.  Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer!  Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!




[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]

Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill.  One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis).   As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London,  where it is exhibited.



The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419).  This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself.  Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.

What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world?  Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.”  She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel  García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others.  She writes:

“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)

She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).

As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing.  The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…

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In and “Out of Oz”: Dorothy in the “Wicked Years” series

2 Jun

Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire, illus. by Douglas Smith. HarperCollins, 2011.


Dorothy, the beloved character created at the turn of the 20th-century by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, makes pivotal appearances in all four volumes of Gregory Maguire’s inspired refashioning of the Oz world, his “Wicked Years” series.  She does not hold center stage, however, in these books which are a brilliant exercise in empathy for the “Wicked” witch, Elphaba Thropp,  and her descendants.  These books imaginatively alter an already alternate universe, and transform a classic of children’s fantasy literature–also widely appreciated by adults–into a sometimes quite disturbing fantasy fiction for adults. In this alternate history, Dorothy Gale still comes in and out of Oz, on and off the stage, at crucial times and much of the story could never exist without her.


Dorothy’s first visit to Oz comes along rather late in Wicked (2004), which introduced Elphaba’s family, chronicled her childhood, and sent her to college in the Gillikin town of Shiz where she unwillingly shared a room with Galinda (later Glinda) and began to learn about the politics of Oz and where she would stand on them.  For one thing, she championed the cause of the free, sentient, talking Animals (always capitalized, as in Lion). She also came to recognize the tyranny of the Emerald City over the other regions of Oz, which were exploited by its leader the Wizard.  After their college years were over, Elphaba began to act, in secret, as an agent of the resistance to the Wizard. 

Dorothy’s arrival from Kansas in the twister-propelled house killed Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who had become the leader of Munchkinland.  Here the story begins to intersect recognizably with Baum’s tale.  Glinda gave Nessarose’s magical slippers to Dorothy, enraging Elphaba, who retreated again to a castle deep in the western region of Oz, the Vinkus (Winkie country). This place was the family home of Fiyero, Elphaba’s only love and father of her son Liir; Fiyero was killed by the Wizard’s secret police who were after her.  While Dorothy and her motley companions walked the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard, Elphaba learned sorcery from the Grimmerie, a magic text which had attracted the Wizard to Oz in the first place.

Dorothy had apparently accepted the Wizard’s charge to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, but in Maguire’s telling, she had no such intention, but journeyed there to apologize to Elphaba for killing her sister with the falling house. Elphaba had become embittered by many griefs and their meeting was confrontational and disastrous. Elphaba’s skirts were set on fire and Dorothy threw the bucket of water to douse the flames and save her, but this melted and killed her instead.


The next book, Son of a Witch (2005), tells Liir’s story (with flashbacks to fill in gaps) from the death of Elphaba to the birth of his own daughter.  Dorothy’s role is brief. She took him with her back to the Emerald City and Liir developed a crush of sorts on the odd Kansas farmgirl. Perhaps her being so out of place in Oz spoke to his own sense of disconnection with all that had happened to him.


A Lion Among Men  recounts Dorothy’s first visit to Oz from the view point of Sir Brrr, otherwise known as the Cowardly Lion. But it spans more of his life than this one episode, and thereby reveals more of his character, in keeping with the series’ ethos of respecting intelligent Animals.  

In the final volume, Out of Oz, Dorothy returns to Oz, this time in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906! (This reference to the quake in popular culture has already found its way into the wikipedia article on the event.) Auntie Em and Uncle Henry have taken Dorothy on a trip west from Kansas, in hopes that the change of scene will help cure Dorothy of her persistent delusional talk about Oz!  Maguire manipulates the chronology deftly: From 1900 (publication of Baum’s first Oz book) to 1906 is 6 years and Dorothy has aged from 10 at her first visit to 16 for her second. Meanwhile, about 16 years have passed in Oz (leading to jokes  where Dorothy agrees that time passes slowly–very slowly–in Kansas).  Most of the book follows the coming-of-age adventures of Rain, Liir’s daughter and thus Elphaba’s granddaughter.  The best Oz stories have a child at their heart and Maguire’s concluding tale is no different in that respect. The Cowardly Lion is likewise one of Rain’s faithful companions and provides a necessary link between the first and last books and between Baum’s storyworld and Maguire’s. 


Some of the key plot elements (the war of rebellion in Oz) and several of the characters (including Tip, Mombey, Ozma, and Jinjuria) in Out of Oz mirror those in Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). Of Baum’s fourteen Oz novels, this is the only one in which Dorothy doesn’t appear. However, Maguire gives her an important role, especially in the centerpiece murder trial, “The Judgment of Dorothy.”  Revealing how that came out would be a *spoiler* indeed!

Instead of revealing more of Maguire’s well-crafted plot, let me consider instead how he portrays Dorothy in this series and how his attitude toward her differs from Baum’s. Given how she is described by the narrator and how other characters speak of her, she is an ungainly child, “not a dainty thing but a good-size farm girl,” (Wicked, p. 3), and an even more awkward teenager.  Rather than fitting Baum illustrator John R. Neill’s winsome vision…  


she seems much closer to the stocky miss imagined by her first illustrator, W. W. Denslow. 


She is saccharine, “misguidedly cheerful,” given to inappropriate singing, apparently stupid, and clearly a menace! In the prologue to Wicked, Elphaba finds her sympathy patronizing. While naive and guileless, she has a definite presence, especially during her trial:

Aha, thought Brrr, there it is: she has graduated to Miss Dorothy. In her zanily earnest way, she’s commanding the respect of her enemies despite themselves. Brrr would never call it charisma but oh, Dorothy had charm of a sort, for sure. (Out of Oz, p. 294)

Her best qualities came out in her desire to make amends and her insistence on helping Rain. But in the end, for Maguire, Dorothy’s life, despite its adventures and calamities (she was an orphan), was not touched to the same degree by the sorrows and tragedies that characterized the Wicked clan. Her disposition was so incredible to the Ozians that they imagined at one point that she must be an assassin, disguised “as a gullible sweetheart.”  Baum prized Dorothy’s innocent goodness, her wide-eyed, doughty good humor, but in the Wicked universe (our universe?), it became almost an affront to the inhabitants laboring under so much pain. The onslaught of sorrows broke Elphaba’s spirit, left Liir perplexed, and made Rain cry for “the whole pitfall of it, the stress and mercilessness of incident” (p. 421). Even Glinda was imprisoned and suffered during the war.  The gentle satire of Dorothy’s “soapy character” makes it clear that this author would not choose her outlook, but instead felt greater affinity for Elphaba above all, whose tortured spirit never really leaves the saga for long.


“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.


For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.



G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)



Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.


  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

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Lazarillo de Tormes: A Precursor of Don Quixote

14 Mar


The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (trans. by W. S. Merwin; intro. by Juan Goytisolo). New York: New York Review of Books, 2005.

In the Spanish novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, Lazaro tells the story of his life, or rather unwinds the string of “fortunes and adversities” he experienced in the service of a series of difficult masters. He is the picaro,  and the genre which his story inaugurated is the picaresque.  Authorship is unknown but the book was published in Spain and the Netherlands in 1554. Satirizing certain church figures and their abuses, it was banned and listed by the Inquisition.  Here is one of its early title pages, from Burgos. 


Lazaro’s story runs only 118 pages in poet W. S. Merwin’s adept 1962 translation; in one or two delectable gulps, one can easily digest a work that is rewarding in itself and also one of the major precursors of Don QuixoteLazaro’s parents were often in trouble themselves, so the boy had to leave his mother’s home early and manage as best he could as the servant of a blind beggar.  This man beat him and taught him how to survive in a world that only seemed to offer similar treatment whatever the station of those doling it out. After barely escaping this first master with his life, he serves, in turn, a priest, a squire, a friar, a seller of indulgences (also known as a pardoner), a chaplain, and a constable.  His third master, the squire, is the kindest and also the most important in terms of the story’s legacy for literature. 

The squire is a penniless and starving nobleman and, as his servant, Lazaro covers for his master’s down-at-heels condition and begs door-to-door to obtain food for them both.  In their conversations, we have the germ of Don Quixote and Sancho, the impractical hidalgo and his more sensible companion.

“Lazaro, it’s late, … Let’s get along as best we can, and tomorrow, once the daylight is here, God will be good to us. I’m all by myself so I hadn’t got anything laid in; I’ve been eating out for the last three days. But now we’ll have to make other arrangements.”

“Oh, as for me, sir,” I said, “set your mind at rest. I’m capable of going without food for a night, or even longer if necessary.”

“You’ll live longer and keep your health better,” he answered. “Because as we were saying, there’s nothing in the world like eating little to make you live long.”

“If that’s the way of it,” I said to myself, “I’ll live forever, because I’ve kept that rule religiously, and for that matter I expect I’ll have the bad luck to keep it for the rest of my life.” (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, pp. 62-63)

But whereas Lazaro moves on alone, to suffer more mishaps with new employers, Cervantes makes his pair of Don Quixote and Sancho undergo most adventures as a unit, confronting the villains and tricksters they meet on the road as a team.



Don Quixote is not a picaresque novel, nor is its hero a picaro, any more than it is a straightforward chivalric romance, the other genre that Alonso Quexana addled his brains with and Cervantes used, parodied, and transformed.  Cervantes’ novel expands and defies genre; it is too self-conscious for romance and too subtle in conception for picaresque.  Lazarillo de Tormes is specifically mentioned in chapter XXII of the First Part of Don Quixote, by Gines  de Pasamonte, one of the chain gang of galley slaves that Don Quixote has freed. Gines announces that he is writing The Life of Gines de Pasamonte, and brags that, “It is so good, that it’s too bad for Lazarillo de Tormes and all other books of that genre that have been or will be written” (Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman, p. 169).

If the list of Lazaro’s masters reminds you of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, this is no accident, since Lazarillo de Tormes represents a link between medieval tales and the novels which were soon to follow, beginning with Don Quixote. As Juan Goytisolo points out in his Introduction to Lazarillo, Lazaro learns and changes over the course of his adventures, unlike the protagonists of medieval tales who tended to illustrate fixed traits (e.g., patient Griselda).

Don Quixote is often cited, quite rightly, as an important influence on Mark Twain, but Twain’s greatest work also bears comparison with Lazarillo. Huckleberry Finn tells his story in the first person, as Lazaro does, and Huck is closer to the hungry, penniless boy Lazaro than to the courtly, lovestruck Don.  However, when Huck joins forces with Jim, their partnership both pays tribute to Cervantes’ immortal duo and gives new dimension to the pairing of unfortunate heroes.

The House of Silk (Review): Dr. Watson’s “one last portrait of Mr. Sherlock Holmes…”

14 Nov

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz. New York: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2011.


The House of Silk is one of those books whose publication becomes an event, one that creates a great deal of anticipation. It is the first Sherlock Holmes novel authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entrusted with the canon of original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels and, therefore, the caretaker of a legend. Whatever the skills and prior credits of the new novel’s author, Anthony Horowitz–and he does possess those credits as a novelist and screenwriter–the task must have been a formidable burden and opportunity.

I opened this book with some excitement. I consider myself, in some small way, as another champion and caretaker of the Sherlock Holmes legend. His character means a great deal to me and I continue to follow and chronicle his career in the world. New books and films describing further adventures of Holmes keep this greatest of private consulting detectives before the public eye. So many such books appear each year that it is helpful to have a guide to the best of them, so I read with interest when new pastiches are recommended by Better Holmes & Gardens or John H Watson MD (himself!), among others. Yet before it was even written, Horowitz’s novel commanded attention by its special status. Let me say right now: that attention is not wasted. Readers will find a mystery that is carefully constructed and boldly conceived, and, most important, it offers a Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. Watson whom we can recognize as our own beloved figures.

As I go on, rest easy that this review will be very light on *Spoilers*, alluding to just a few of those “strange and interesting features” [FIVE] of the case that might lead an astute reader to deduce plot elements in Holmesian fashion.

The book begins with deceptive calm. At the end of it, I can say that it almost felt like two books: first, a leisurely reintroduction to the world of 221B Baker Street and 1890s London, establishing the reader’s confidence in the author’s command of his characters–their history, their mannerisms–through a careful web of references to the canon; but second, an avowedly “shocking” mystery that suddenly took off at breakneck speed. Perhaps that’s how it would have seemed to Holmes and Watson as well, living inside the novel.

From his entrance, Holmes behaves much as we would expect him to, employing his usual phrases (e.g., “Pray continue.”) in just the right places (when a client or witness is sharing his or her story). He gives several of those casual, but extraordinary performances of his deductive skills which have astonished his clients and Dr. Watson’s readers from the start. Expect to look for Holmes in disguise. Expect him to be in some peril, as he seeks to prevent others from falling prey to great evil. Expect Holmes to ask and Dr. Watson to bring his revolver. Yet there is both newness and nuance in the presentation of familiar tropes. For one thing, Sherlock Holmes shows a new awareness of the implications of using the Baker Street Irregulars, feeling acutely his responsibility for putting them in the path of greater criminality than they might otherwise have encountered even on the backstreets of London.

The case itself may make the novel controversial, because of the picture it paints of those involved and the scope of the crime. All will hinge on discovering the truth behind “The House of Silk.” Yet Horowitz is on solid ground in relying on the fact that what was shocking to Watson–too deplorable to appear among his published chronicles–would still be shocking now. Crime is disturbing and Holmes never flinched when he could combat it. I can only say that the conduct of the case pits him against some truly formidable opponents and reveals some surprising allies.

Yet for me, the most important contribution of this novel is its sensitive portrait of Dr. John Watson. Watson is on his own during much of the story, as he was in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is true on two levels. First, he is separated from Holmes for much of the investigation. He admits (along with Inspector Lestrade) that Holmes’s virtuosity was at times intimidating and dampened his own powers to reason and act effectively. In this case, Watson has room to do his best, and then some. But more than that, we learn the poignant fact that Watson is writing this story after Holmes’s death, and while he himself is being attended by nurses in his later years. Watson’s superb Preface establishes immediately an extremely intimate voice. He looks back at “the great turning point in my life” when he met a young Sherlock Holmes and reviews their time together. He decides to “take up his pen one final time” not only to present a startling case that has been kept secret, but to show another side of his friend and, vicariously, through the medium of authorship, to prolong the moments he can spend in his extraordinary company. He is doubly sad when the story must conclude, and with it, his renewed companionship on the page.

I too welcome Horowitz’s engaging novel, especially for the gift of time spent in the company of Holmes and Watson, and I highly recommend it.

Further reading:

Let me also recommend to your attention a few other reviews of the novel. These reviews point out  a variety of canonical Holmesian references in their analyses of Horowitz’s story, so one may wish to read the novel first to discover them on one’s own.



Steinbeck’s Malory I: “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”

23 Aug


“Perhaps a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book.” ~John Steinbeck, Introduction to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meant this much to Steinbeck, and more. If ever there was a love story of knightly proportions, it was this adventure of his lifelong relationship to the 15th-century Arthurian classic. He first swore fealty to it when he was 9–or, “whan of IX wyntre age,” as he would later pen in his moving dedication to his sister Mary. He confesses (in his Introduction) to some difficulty when he first faced the task of reading: “words–written or printed–were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.” Then a magical thing happened. His aunt gave him a cut copy of William Caxton’s Morte d’Arthur (first published in 1485) in bold, black print and with the original spellings intact.  The mystery of words such as hyght and cleave, fyaunce and yclept, drew him into a secret world with a secret language, one he shared only with his “squire,” his 6-year-old sister (in the dedication he raises her to full knighthood). He was held by their enchantment–”oddly enough I knew the words from whispering them to myself,” he recalled. These tales convinced him of their solid human reality, and he discovered in their scenes

“all the vices that ever were–and courage and sadness and frustration, but particularly gallantry. I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret book.”

Malory’s panorama of life sustained Steinbeck through childhood and inspired careful research and devoted investigation of its sources in adulthood. Finally, in 1956, Steinbeck, the successful novelist, allowed himself the privilege of turning his whole attention upon his first love and undertaking the great task of fashioning his own version of Malory, somewhere between a translation and a retelling. From his letters, we know that he continued working on it until 1965. It was unfinished at his death in 1968, but his manuscript was published by his wife Elaine in 1976, along with an Appendix of his letters from that period (edited by Chase Horton) which chart his research and writing process in illuminating detail.


The stories included in this book are a tremendous treasure, and we are lucky to have them. I chose to read Steinbeck’s stories first before referring to the letters, in order to form my own impressions, but I did refer to Malory along the way for comparison, to see how he remolded the language and to look for Steinbeck’s alterations and expansions. (Malory, of course, was retelling the Arthurian cycle as he knew it from the “Frensshe” books of Chrétien de Troyes and others.) Although Steinbeck’s first love was Caxton’s printing of Malory’s text, his research and discussions with Arthurian scholars, such as Eugène Vinaver, led him to adopt the Winchester manuscript of Malory as his foundational text for “translation.” He felt it was closer to Malory’s own phrasing and had not gone through the filter of whatever editing or cutting Caxton had chosen to do.  The Winchester manuscript (abridged, with modernized spellings) is available to the general reader in an Oxford World Classics edition.


Since I hope to convey my appreciation of Steinbeck’s telling, I will share a few of these comparisons, and then take up the romance of his writing process by considering what the letters reveal in a second post (see Steinbeck’s Malory II: The Writing of “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”).

Steinbeck’s Malory tells seven tales: “Merlin,” which recounts Arthur’s birth, and ascension to kingship; “The Knight with Two Swords,” the story of Balin and his twin Balan; “The Wedding of King Arthur,” which also includes an early quest of Sir Gawain; “The Death of Merlin,” from his own folly, and through the craft of the sorceress Nyneve; “Morgan Le Fay”; “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt”; and “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.” Steinbeck felt that Malory’s writing grew in sophistication as his work proceeded, and correspondingly, Steinbeck adds more of his own observations and expansions of incidents in the later stories, especially in the tale of Lancelot. However, even in such an early incident as the appearance of Merlin to Sir Ulfius, Steinbeck added to Malory’s report of the incident.

First, Malory [Ref. 2, p. 4]:

[King Uther Pendragon:] ‘I am sick for anger, and for love of fair Igraine, that I may not be whole.’

‘Well, my lord,’ said Sir Ulfius, ‘I shall seek Merlin, and he shall do you remedy, that your heart shall be pleased.’

So Ulfius departed. And by adventure he met Merlin in a beggar’s array, and there Merlin asked Ulfius whom he sought; and he said he had little ado to tell him.

‘Well,’ said Merlin, ‘I know whom thou seekest, for thou seekest Merlin; therfore seek no further, for I am he….’

Now, Steinbeck [Ref. 1, p. 4]:

[King Uther Pendragon:] “I am sick from anger and from love and there are no medicines for those.”

“My lord,” Sir Ulfius said, “I shall go in search of Merlin the Wizard. That wise and clever man can brew a remedy to make your heart glad.” And Sir Ulfius rode out to look for Merlin.

Now Merlin was a wise and subtle man with strange and secret powers of prophecy and those deceptions of the ordinary and the obvious which are called magic. Merlin knew the winding channels of the human mind, and also he was aware that a simple open man is most receptive when he is mystified, and Merlin delighted in mystery. Therefore, as if by chance, the searching knight Sir Ulfius came upon a ragged beggar in his path who asked him who he sought.

The knight was not accustomed to be questioned by such a one, and he did not deign to reply.

Then the ragged man laughed and said, “There’s no need to tell me. I know. You are looking for Merlin, Look no further. I am Merlin.”

“You–? You are a beggar,” said Sir Ulfius.

Merlin chuckled at his joke. “I am also Merlin,” he said.

Steinbeck chose carefully those phrases with which to modernize and clarify the incident, but his biggest change was his narrative aside, commenting on the psychology of Merlin and the knight. (Interestingly, I now see that Sherlock Holmes was a Merlin among detectives, who knew how to mystify his clients upon first meeting with his powers of observation, and thereby gain the most from the initial interview.) As I read Steinbeck’s Malory, whenever I came upon certain psychological insights such as this one, I guessed that they were more like Steinbeck, the novelist, than Malory, the brilliant, but terse storyteller.

Steinbeck sometimes put these psychological enhancements into the mouth of a character, or into a little dialogue not found in Malory. After Arthur’s fight with King Pellinore, Arthur bemoaned his defeat and the loss of his sword and wondered how he could still consider himself a knight. Merlin answered him,

“…there is more to a king than a crown, and far more to a knight than a sword. You were a knight when you grappled Pellinore unarmed.”

“And he defeated me.”

“You were a knight,” said Merlin. “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory. But you want a sword. Very well, you shall have one….” [Steinbeck, p. 44]

And the story continued with the revelation of Excalibur and its magic scabbard.

When Merlin disclosed to Arthur that his, Merlin’s, death was near, Arthur wondered why Merlin could not use his arts to save himself from an end he could foresee. In Malory, Merlin simply said, “Nay, it cannot be.” But Steinbeck (p. 99) let Merlin explain, “Because I am wise. In the combat between wisdom and feeling, wisdom never wins.” Merlin then connected his own downfall to Arthur’s foretold future, one where he would let feeling lead him on to his fate. In these early stories, Steinbeck felt a special kinship to Merlin, a wise man betrayed by passions, as he looked back over his own life. Later he would find his heart and soul in the story of Lancelot, the exceedingly noble and flawed knight, the best of them all.

Steinbeck began to give himself greater scope in his treatment of “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.” At its opening, he chose to reflect longer than Malory did about the paradoxical problem of knights who seek peace but are trained only for war and therefore become restless. Tournaments among the Knights of the Round Table answered this need, but for Sir Lancelot, “a stringless bow,” they were not enough and he set off in quest of knightly adventure, with his nephew Lyonel as squire. In an amusing creation of his own, Steinbeck had Guinevere suggest this idea in conversation with Arthur, who in turn allowed Lancelot to come to the necessary conclusion apparently on his own.

When Lancelot slept beneath an apple tree, and was abducted by four queens–who, including Morgan Le Fay, were also four witches–Steinbeck expanded the story greatly, as each queen elaborately pled her suit to have Lancelot choose her. Likewise, in the adventure where Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay exchanged shields, just a few words between them alter the entire motivation and bring out Lancelot’s newfound compassion for the other knight. In another episode (involving a lady, her hawk, and a trap set by her husband) Steinbeck went beyond the plain facts and straightforward emotions as Malory laid them out, delved into Lancelot’s thoughts, and added his psychological commentary (p. 277):

“As he went along his way he thought in saddened wonder about the man he had killed. Why was his hatred so great against Lancelot, who had done him no harm? He was innocent of those passions of jealousy which cause a small man to destroy what others admire, nor had he so far in his life felt the self-loathing that makes a man revenge himself on a world he blames for his own inadequacies.”

When Sir Lancelot at last returned to the court at Winchester, he resumed his “gold-lettered seat” at the Round Table and had to listen to the litany of his knightly deeds (p. 287). Wearily, he dozed as the stories grew in proportion to his fame, “exalted beyond his recognition,” and he wished to be anywhere else at that moment. He had reached the point where a man “becomes the receptacle of the wishful longings of the world,” and yet he was still alive. He found it most difficult to be a living legend. Steinbeck’s tale ended as Lancelot’s longing for Guinevere first overcame his loyalties with a betrayal, thus making the final quote from Malory both poignant and ironic (p. 293):

“And so at that tyme sir Lancelot had

the grettyste name of ony knyght of the worlde,

and moste he was honoured of hyghe and lowe.”


Sadly, Steinbeck did not finish the story of Arthur nor did he write the Story of the Grail, the Sangreall. I would have dearly loved to see his treatment of this ultimate quest and his characterization of Sir Perceval. Perceval was the Arthurian character I chose for The Fictional 100, a character who has inspired the literature of several languages, as well as the musical language of opera.

Writing this book became a quest for him (see Steinbeck’s Malory II). It was one of the last, heroic acts of the noble Knyght, Jehan Stynebec de Montray. Here is his signature, in his own script, with which he concluded the book’s dedication.




1. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources  (Ed. by Chase Horton). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Includes an Appendix of his letters about this project from November 1956 to July 1965.

  • A Penguin paperback edition (2008) makes this book, complete with Steinbeck’s letters, readily available again. It includes a new introduction by fantasy novelist Christopher Paolini.

2. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Ed. by Helen Cooper). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. An abridged selection of Malory’s stories, with updated spellings.

3. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur (Intro. by Elizabeth Bryan). New York: Modern Library, 1994. Complete Caxton text in one volume, with modernized spellings. It also has Caxton’s Book and Chapter headings, which are tremendously useful for finding particular episodes.

Related post:


  • Visit Bibliographing for another Classics Circuit post on The Acts of King Arthur

Other stops on the Steinbeck Classics Circuit today:


Steinbeck’s Malory II: The Writing of “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”

23 Aug


“This is destined to be the largest and I hope the most important work I have ever undertaken.” ~John Steinbeck, from a letter to Elizabeth Otis, August 7, 1957, appended to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)


While working on his great project to translate Malory’s Morte d’Arthur for modern readers, John Steinbeck wrote long letters to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his editor, Chase Horton. These letters are collected and reprinted in an Appendix to Steinbeck’s Arthurian stories, unfinished at the time of his death in 1968, but published in 1976 by his wife Elaine. His letters open a window onto the fascinating process of literary creation, from the intial excitement and exuberant planning, through research and gestation of his ideas about the deep meaning of the characters and their struggles, and on to his own struggles to fashion an appropriate storytelling language and retell the tales in his own way. We read of the starts, stops, and reversals–some of them quite heartbreaking.  This is the novelist near the end of his life going on his own “Grail Quest,” if you will, and his attempt is brave and dedicated, heroic in a way different from the literary triumphs of his youth.


It is wonderful to catch the excitement he felt as he began. On November 11, 1956, he wrote from New York to Elizabeth Otis (ERO in the letters), “I am going to start the Morte immediately. Let it be private between us until I get it done. It has all the old magic.”  He was anxious to do a lot of reading to prepare, but he also wanted  time to ruminate, to think himself into the characters. In one exchange with Otis about the nature of Arthur, his side of the conversation is tantalizing indeed:

“Arthur is not a character. You are right. … Perhaps the large symbol figures can’t be characters, for if they were, we wouldn’t identify with them by substituting our own. Such a thing is worth thinking about surely. … [Jan. 2, 1957] … Somewhere there’s a piece missing in the jigsaw and it is a piece which ties the whole thing together. So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur ever existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over. … [Jan. 3, 1957]“

Furthermore, Steinbeck wanted to understand Sir Thomas Malory as deeply as he could, what his life had been like, especially his three years in prison when he had the enforced leisure to bring together the reading and experience of a lifetime and write Le Morte d’Arthur. As he worked through his impressions of Malory and their implications for the tales, he brought Chase Horton into the conversation, along with Otis. Steinbeck wrote, “A novel may be said to be the man who writes it” [April 26, 1957]. He said that the novelist brings himself (or herself!) into the novel through a “self-character”–a spokesman who expresses for the author “not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be.”  A writer may do this unconsciously, he said, but  Steinbeck himself seemed well aware of it: “You will find one in every one of my books and in the novels of everyone I can remember.”

Steinbeck made an excellent case that Lancelot was Malory’s “self-character” and the story of the Grail Quest was where Malory faced both the dreams and limitations of his own life, through Lancelot. Steinbeck argued that in midlife a man knows that he will not win the Quest himself, but his son can–hence, Galahad. As he wrestled with the moment when he, Steinbeck, could bring his selfhood to this archetypal story, he gained a new understanding of what Malory had achieved–not simply an English retelling of the 12th-century French Arthurian contes, but a coherent novel of his own making and his own time in history:

“the Morte is the story of Sir Thomas Malory and his times and the story of his dreams of goodness and his wish that the story may come out well and only molded by the essential honesty which will not allow him to lie.” [April 26, 1957]

In March 1958 he began writing. One of his first decisions was to change the title–to either “The Acts of King Arthur” or “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.” He wanted to take “a living approach rather than a deathly approach to the whole subject” [March 4, 1958]. He felt the “Morte” was a small part of the whole, and his title should reflect its real subject more faithfully than the one Caxton chose for his first printing of Malory. In fact, Steinbeck never wrote his chapter on the Death of King Arthur.

Almost from the beginning, Steinbeck expressed some uncertainty about his approach and the sort of language he should adopt for his retelling. He worried about his ability to enter the mindset of the times and interpret the ghosts of the past. He refers to “a curious state of suspension … kind of a floaty feeling like drifting in a canoe on a misty lake” [March 14, 1958].

He planned to draw upon both the Caxton first edition and the Winchester manuscript and do a fair translation into modern English. (While he used both, in the end he relied more heavily on the Winchester manuscript.) His thinking on this vital matter reached a decisive point by July of 1958. He was feeling hampered by sticking too closely to Malory’s language and structure. He realized he had to write for the modern ear, just as Malory wrote for the “English ear” of the 15th Century. Everything changed once Steinbeck decided that he was not aiming for a “period-piece” but a new way to convey the content of the stories for his own time:

“An amazing thing happens once you drop the restrictions of the fifteenth-century language. Immediately the stories open up and come out of their entombment. … I am so familiar with the work now that I am no longer frightened of it. … where once I would have been reluctant to add anything, I no longer am.” [July 9, 1958]

He resolved to allow himself to fill in the gaps where he felt modern readers would not catch the meaning because of the societal norms and codes of behavior that were assumed as common knowledge in medieval times. He wrote to Otis and Horton a few days later with a fine example of this method, which he called his “experiment”:

“Now in the first mention of her [Igraine], Malory says she was a fair lady and passing wise. When she hears that her husband is dead and in some way she cannot understand she was tricked–Malory says, ‘Thenne she marvelled who that knight that lay were her in the likeness of her lord. So she mourned pryvely and held her pees.’

“My God! There’s all the character you need if you only point it with a repetition. I have translated as follows: ‘When news came to Igraine that the duke her husband was slain the night before, she was troubled and she wondered who it was that lay with her in the image of her husband. But she was a wise woman and she mourned privately and did not speak of it.’” [July 11, 1958, Steinbeck's emphasis]

See my Steinbeck’s Malory I for more comparison passages, showing how Steinbeck clarified or expanded upon Malory’s lean tales, especially by enhancing psychological insight through new narration or interpolated dialogue.

Steinbeck worked in his garage in his New York home, but by August of 1958 he had built his own “Joyous Garde”–a prefab workroom that he added to facilitate his daily writing routine. Nevertheless, by October he was feeling “like an engine that is missing fire in several cylinders… the engine doesn’t run.” The myths he had steeped himself in were keeping him from sleeping, as auditory and visual images paraded through his imagination.

In March of 1959, he and his wife Elaine set up housekeeping in the Somerset countryside. He continued his travels to places with Arthurian associations in Cornwall and elsewhere in England, and the whole time was idyllic and tremendously nourishing to his writing. He was very careful about setting and wanted to be able to describe the terrain and flora accurately. But most of all, he hoped to wake the “sleeping Arthur” and manifest the right language and solutions to his confusions. He wrote to Chase Horton, “The twentieth century seems very remote. … Moon shots indeed!” [March 24, 1959] He repeated that he was no longer afraid of Malory, now that he found himself on that author’s “home ground” and he felt he was the one to write these stories not just for “a little island set in a silver sea, but the world.” At last he settled on the language that he believed could contain this dream: “a close-reined, taut, economical English, unaccented and unlocalized. I put down no word that has not been judged for general understanding. … I think it is the best prose I have ever written.” To Elizabeth Otis, he confided his growing confidence in the writing: “the words that gather to my pen are honest, sturdy words, needing no adjectival crutches” [March 30, 1959].

He soon finished drafting and refining his “Merlin” and at last allowed Otis and Horton to see his manuscript. We can only imagine what they wrote back to him from Steinbeck’s response, but Otis’s comments and Horton’s apparent lack of them stung him deeply. Yet he remained gracious and magnanimous in his response of May 13, 1959. Although he admitted to being shocked, he professed to  understand their reasons for being “confused” and “disappointed”–”you expected one kind of thing and didn’t get it.” It broke my heart when I read, “I hope I am too professional to be shocked into paralysis.” One does not have to read between the lines too much to infer that his agent and editor were expecting something along the lines of T. H. White’s Once and Future King, but in a recognizable Steinbeck idiom. Acknowledging that it did not sound like him,  he tried to explain to them why he didn’t want it to.

His defense of what he wrote is fascinating because it shows his command of the broad Indo-European tradition of myth and legend. He saw Arthur as a legendary figure, out of time and therefore timeless–”I wanted an English that was out of time and place as the legend is. … I am trying to make it available, not desirable. I want the remote feeling of myth, not the intimate feeling of today’s man. … [not] a popular book, but a permanent book.” [May 13, 1959]

It shouldn’t surprise us that his agent and editor wanted something more commercial and less scholarly. Ironically, in today’s market, I think Steinbeck’s “Acts of King Arthur” could have more readily found a commercial niche as epic fantasy. Witness the fact that the recent paperback reissue by Penguin has a Foreword by Eragon writer, Christopher Paolini. But Steinbeck wasn’t at the place in his career where he was concerned about his commercial niche but rather his niche in literary history. He wanted to fashion a work that would join the centuries-long Arthurian literary genealogy.  Coincidentally, Steinbeck mentioned that Alan Lerner was busy writing a musical about Arthur (which would be Camelot!) and he predicted that it would be “lovely and make a million billion dollars [!]–but that isn’t what I want.” He had a persistent sense that Malory was tapping into something more fundamental, and he wanted to keep digging for it, beneath the superficial charm that fueled some Arthurian adaptations.

Steinbeck continued writing more of the tales, his way, and his treatment grew freer and more richly expansive in Lancelot’s tale, the last one he finished. In his final letter about the project, from July 8, 1965, he reported that he still struggled on with Arthur but he was excited about something new he was trying, “strange and different, but not bad.”  I wish we could see where he was headed but I am so grateful for what he have of his efforts.

We may disagree with Steinbeck’s assessment of competing works such as Camelot, The Once and Future King, or Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Each in its own way brings out some valid aspect of the Arthurian myth cycle. But I do admire Steinbeck’s fidelity to his own quest, something that we may allow such a great artist in the waning years of his literary adventures. I cannot help but be inspired by his faith: “I must gamble on this feeling about it. … Kings, Gods, and Heroes–maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it” [May 14, 1959].



1. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources  (Ed. by Chase Horton). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Includes an Appendix of Steinbeck’s letters on the project from November 1956 through July 1965.

  • A Penguin paperback edition (2008) makes this book, complete with Steinbeck’s letters, readily available again. It includes a new introduction by fantasy novelist Christopher Paolini.

2. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Ed. by Helen Cooper). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. An abridged selection of Malory’s stories, with updated spellings.

3. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur (Intro. by Elizabeth Bryan). New York: Modern Library, 1994. Complete Caxton text in one volume, with modernized spellings. It also has Caxton’s Book and Chapter headings, which are tremendously useful for finding particular episodes.

4. Hardyment, Christina. Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. An excellent biography covering Sir Thomas Malory’s life, the circumstances of his writing the Morte d’Arthur, and the sources he drew upon.

Related post:


  • Visit Bibliographing for another Classics Circuit post on The Acts of King Arthur

Other stops on the Steinbeck Classics Circuit today:


On Sherlock Holmes and Superman: Catching Them at the Crossroads

5 Jul

Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both unusual men, to say the least. Hence, they have each aroused a sustained curiosity in their readers to understand how they got that way. For Sherlock Holmes, readers must rely on hints, dropped artfully within the canon stories and novels, of his early family life, his education, his  formative exploits in the science of detection, whereas for Superman, his formative years already loom prominently in his story, and are essential to creating his myth.

New treatments of these characters’ early years, therefore, face different, complementary challenges. Sherlock’s youth must be rather thoroughly imagined by would-be authors, whereas Superman’s youth must be re-imagined. As examples, I will consider two recent books that make fine contributions to their respective literatures: The Crack in the Lens (Foolscap & Quill, 2010) by Darlene Cypser and Superman: Earth One (DC Comics, 2010) by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrator Shane Davis.



In The Crack in the Lens, the dramatic irony of all we know about the Great Detective could hang heavy, but Cypser blends old and new plot elements with a light, enjoyable touch. At seventeen, Sherlock is not yet the dominant figure that he will become. He is subject to the implacable will of Squire Holmes, who does not understand or indulge his youngest son. Sherlock’s older brothers are more benevolent presences. Mycroft has the most insight into Sherlock and is the most help to him in the end. Sherrinford, who displays a natural warmth and good will, is the solid, eldest brother who will one day be Squire. Though “not incisively intelligent in the manner of his two younger siblings,” he is, as goddessinsepia observes so perceptively, “earnest and compassionate in a way that foreshadows the presence of Dr. Watson.” As a reader, I was heartily glad to meet him here.

One more figure dominates Sherlock’s young life, his new 25-year-old tutor, a certain Professor James Moriarty. He has been hired to further Sherlock’s chance of getting a place at university to study engineering, thereby fulfilling his father’s determined wish for his future career. Squire Holmes recites the man’s qualifications: “He comes highly recommended and is reported to possess a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” earning him a university chair which he had lately resigned to seek “more prestigious employment” (p. 48). Sherlock is already astute enough to wonder to himself “why a man would agree to tutor the youngest son of a country squire if such glory awaited him elsewhere.” The battle of wits began early for these two and the novel develops this angle with ingenious care and faithfulness to Sherlock’s relatively powerless position as a young student. One very effective engine of suspense is the question of whether (and how) Sherlock may overcome this distinct disadvantage.

Another catalyst will be the fate of Violet Rushdale, daughter of one of the tenants on the Holmes’ land. Sherlock’s romance with Violet is the most original element of the novel, and given its seeming improbability to most students of Sherlock Holmes’ character, Cypser offers it up rather seamlessly and convincingly, creating both a watershed moment and a dark secret that explains much of what drives the adult detective. When the Constable says, “There’s no detective on earth who could find her now,” I could almost see young Sherlock mentally picking up that gauntlet! This moment beautifully foreshadows both his impatience with the police and his attraction to the seemingly insoluble case.



In Superman: Earth One, we find Clark Kent struggling with grief over Pa Kent’s death, worry over his mother, and indecision about his own future. Clad in leather jacket, dark red hoody, and jeans, he is pacing the streets of Metropolis, with his shoulders hunched and his mouth set in sullen reflection. Clark is morose and on the brink of making a cynical career choice, albeit for the lofty motive of supporting Ma Kent financially.

Newly graduated from Smallville Junior College, he has headed for the big city, Metropolis. As a professional athlete or even as an engineering research scientist, he could take advantage of his superior physical and mental gifts to become a star, and reap a big payday. In the end, he will choose a job where he is not so obviously a standout, in fact one where he can fade to the background. If he joins the Daily Planet as a reporter, he will need to learn some things from his associates, Lois and Jimmy, and from his boss, Perry White. But interestingly, he doesn’t make this choice right away, but only after events force his hand.

He is forced to make a decision about himself when interplanetary enemies come to destroy the last son of Krypton. Shall he face them as the man he truly is? Superman: Earth One is particularly deft at reimagining this critical decision in a new way, while keeping some continuity with his Smallville upbringing and his origins as fans of the character know them (see the io9 ComicReview for a detailed comparison with Superman’s standard history). I won’t give more details of how the confrontation plays out, but be sure to read the coverage of it in the Daily Planet (thoughtfully reprinted at the back of the book). I enjoyed seeing Clark use at least one ace-in-the-hole when it came to reporting on Superman.

Both these books attempt to catch their remarkable protagonist at the crossroads, at the moment when events elicit a defining decision. As goddessinsepia says in her excellent review of The Crack in the Lens, the book ends as young Sherlock is “on the cusp of greatness.” In Earth One, Superman’s greatness is first revealed, to the world, to some cosmic villains, and especially to himself, as events shape his decision and draw forth his commitment.

Sherlock Holmes and Superman are both beloved and highly influential characters, each earning a solid place on The Fictional 100.

Noteworthy reviews for further reading:



The Literary Work as a Place of Pilgrimage

10 Jun

Pilgrimage is always an inward journey…” ~Huston Smith, from his Foreword to The Art of Pilgrimage

When we think of making a literary pilgrimage, two main categories spring to mind. First, we may set out to visit a place connected with a favorite author, that author’s home or the place where she or he created the novels, poems, or plays that now draw us into that writer’s mental and emotional orbit. Going to Shakespeare’s Stratford, Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri, Margaret Mitchell’s home in Atlanta, or the Brontës’ Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, England, would be examples of this type of pilgrimage.

Second, literary works can inspire readers to visit a place associated with events within the fictional world. Sherlockians wishing to pay a call at 221b Baker Street, London, can visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum, now bearing that address. Visitors to Verona who are fans of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can be directed to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) on the Via Capello and even plan a wedding there featuring a kiss on Juliet’s balcony. (The film Letters to Juliet envisioned just such a pilgrimage.) Jane Austen’s devoted readers who might wish to visit Bath, London, or other English locations with a view to discovering more about the settings in her novels will find a ready tour guide in Julie Wakefield, whose austenonly website provides abundant detail on locations in the novels and in their film and television adaptations (as well as key places in the author’s life)–enough for a lifetime of Austenian pilgrimage.

When the settings of the fictional world are themselves fictional, making a pilgrimage becomes a little more difficult, but surely not impossible. Walt Disney made it easy to visit Cinderella’s castle, and trips to Baum’s Oz or Tolkien’s Middle-earth are available online for virtual visitors. After reading Goddessinsepia’s essay on the Diogenes Club, I feel a little closer to having visited this favorite fictional haunt of Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. The grave of Jean Valjean presents an interesting case: I can visit the famous cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, but I must merely imagine the unmarked burial plot of Victor Hugo’s most affecting character.

I would like to suggest a third category in which the literary work itself is the place of pilgrimage, both the destination and the road to get there, and the act of reading is the pilgrim’s journey. Certainly, within this category I would have to include the physical literary object itself–often a manuscript or first edition–which can generate much interest on its own and draw visitors who simply want to view it. Recently, the last four chapters of the manuscript for Gone With the Wind came to light in a library in Connecticut, discovered by Ellen F. Brown (watch her CBS interview), author of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. The manuscript has “come home” to Atlanta, where visitors to the Atlanta History Center can view Mitchell’s handwritten changes to the typescript. Both everyday readers and specialists may get a deeper understanding of the novel from such an artefact.

Yet it is the inward journey to the literary work that I want to focus on now. Whenever we pick up a book or story or poem (or watch a play unfold), we may find, often unexpectedly, that it has taken hold of us at a deep level. It seems to be asking us a question, perhaps one of sacred importance, and inviting us to follow through to find the answer. That is when reading (or, in some case, viewing) becomes a sort of pilgrimage. How does this play out, and how can we get the most from our pilgrim quest to a literary work?

For this, I want to consult a wonderful guidebook, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau.



Cousineau organizes his reflections on the soul-nourishing art of pilgrimage according to seven stages of the hero’s journey, made famous in the writings of Joseph Campbell (e.g., The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Let me highlight Cousineau’s stages of pilgrimage as if we are visiting (reading!) a novel. I will take as my example a case in which reading became a pilgrimage for me.

I. The Longing–I do not recall when I first heard of the book Les Misérables, but I do recall learning, probably from my mother, of its opening premise: that a poor man, Jean Valjean, who stole bread for his family, suffered long imprisonment. The simple injustice set up a longing and a curiosity to learn more. Many years followed before…

II. The Call–On a long car trip west, I had packed an audio cassette of the Mercury Theatre radio play of Les Misérables, with the sonorous voice of Orson Welles bringing Jean Valjean to life as I drove across the endless plains of Nebraska. After experiencing this play, I knew I had to read the book. (For many people, the Call for this book might have come differently, perhaps through seeing the Boublil-Schönberg musical  of “Les Mis” on stage or in a PBS broadcast concert.)

III. Departure–While preparing to write The Fictional 100, I began a thorough reading of Hugo’s hefty masterpiece in earnest. I chose the Signet Classic paperback.

IV. The Pilgrim’s WayLes Misérables affords the reader setting off on this long journey some almost magically moving scenes, starting with an account of Jean Valjean’s imprisonment, four escapes, and reimprisonments, showing what kind of changed and hardened man emerged from 19 years chained in the galleys; knowing this about him makes his life-changing encounter with the saintly Bishop Myriel all the more amazing. My first tears came. Moving toward the deep heart of this long novel, some guiding words from Phil Cousineau about the Pilgrim’s Way seem very appropriate:

“Remember, those who don’t ask essential questions don’t find what’s most authentic. The soul of your pilgrimage, the heart of your destination, disappears, will be invisible, like the Grail Castle if you are too afraid or too proud to appear as you really are at the moment–someone far, far from home, without all the answers, without the soul map to the city. Those who refuse to ask vital questions along the way pay the consequence, either by getting lost or by settling for the superficial…” (p.120)

V. The Labyrinth–In The Inferno, Dante starts his pilgrimage in the labyrinthine “dark wood” in the middle of life, but for most books, most readers will be surprised to discover themselves in the labyrinth, looking around, trying to find their way forward, or the way back. Les Misérables was indeed a place far, far from home and I didn’t have the whole map. The political and social upheaval in which the novel is set was as complex as the network of Paris sewers, and while Hugo proved to be an excellent guide, providing fascinating historical background, it was also wise to consult other sources and opinions on these and other matters concerning the novel. At the psychological level, one essential question became understanding my contradictory feelings about Javert. Javert is so well-drawn, and we are given so much access to his thoughts, I found myself sympathizing with him at many points, especially as he careened toward tragedy.  But I also knew that his rule-bound outlook and reliance on moral absolutes caused much suffering. Was my sympathy for him by the author’s design or a product of my own inclination to “play by the rules”? I had to pay attention to questions such as this, if I wished to deepen my journey.

VI. Arrival–Emerging from the Labyrinth and arriving at the end of this book meant arriving at the end of Valjean’s life, and attending at his bedside. The exhilaration of Arrival was tempered by the sense of loss. 

VII. Bringing Back the Boon–I wouldn’t call finishing Les Misérables heroic, but I did finish, so what did I learn? What boon did I bring back? Phil Cousineau writes: “The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon.” I brought back my lived experience with this novel–I remember when I cried, when I forgot I was reading rather than living the story, when I was confused and had to go back a few chapters. I brought back my long acquaintance with Jean Valjean. I brought back a spiritually uplifting story of redemption and forgiveness.  Was this biography of a soul too ideal? Mario Vargas Llosa speaks in its favor, explaining that the book offers The Temptation of the Impossible. I returned from this pilgrimage wanting to turn such impossibility into a living truth.

The occasion for making a pilgrimage to a literary work can be a first reading or a rereading. LifetimeReader has set herself a very ambitious plan of first readings of classics that she has never read or didn’t have time before to engage with fully. She experienced the Call to undertake “A Personal Odyssey” and on January 1, 2011, she launched her Departure with a review of Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, in which she writes:

“A classic, as Calvino says, can come “to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans” and “you cannot remain indifferent.”  Books such as the ones I have put on my list have the potential to be life altering–and at the same time, foster connection between me and the generations on both sides.” ~LifetimeReader

It is wonderful to read what she is discovering along her Pilgrim’s Way, with its many points of Arrival and its Boons of storytelling brought back.

Anniversaries mark opportunities to make a pilgrimage as a return trip to a favorite literary work. June 2011 is the 75th Anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, and fans are observing it with all the types of literary pilgrimage we have described. In the Preface to the 75th Anniversary Edition, novelist Pat Conroy reports that his mother reread the novel straight through every year; clearly, she didn’t need any special anniversary to revisit her favorite book.

Jane Austen’s fans also have a special gift for pilgrimage, and The Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011, announced by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose, is a fine example. I haven’t taken up the challenge myself, but I loved Jane Greensmith’s account of her Umpteenth Reading of Sense and Sensibility. She hones in on a little-noticed passage with very much to say about how readers judge (and misjudge) characters and, likewise, how people judge (and misjudge) people in real life. A boon indeed.

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“‘The Iliad’ with a Southern accent”: Pat Conroy’s Preface to ‘Gone With the Wind’

8 Jun

Have you ever bought a book just to have a copy of the great Preface or Introduction it contained? I have done this more times than I should own up to. I bought The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance by John Hale because of its moving Foreword by Hale’s widow, who told how she had enlisted her husband’s colleagues to finish and publish his last opus. I bought My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk surely to read this novel by one of the world’s most gifted living authors, but I chose the Everyman’s Library edition for the author’s revealing Introduction, in which he discusses the book’s genesis along with his historical research and narrative methods. A treasure trove before the “book” even began!

And now I’ve done it again.

I couldn’t resist Pat Conroy’s preface to Gone With the Wind, in the 2007 Scribner trade paperback I’m holding. It features an arresting cover photo by Marc Yankus and cover design by John Fulbrook III:



But it was Conroy’s preface that sent me walking to the checkout line. Conroy is personal, telling how Margaret Mitchell’s novel pervaded the South he grew up in, explaining its inhabitants to themselves; how it shaped his mother, giving her strength to shake off a Depression-scarred childhood and face the oncoming whispers of war in the 1930s; and finally, how it shaped young Pat Conroy and the writer he became. He admires it and sees its flaws (which he mentions more than once).

For me, Conroy’s portrait of the book was most telling when he began to paint Scarlett O’Hara and articulate the shades of her greatness as a character. He calls her “the most irresistible, spiderous, seditious and wonderful of American heroines.” He compares Scarlett and Rhett Butler to Romeo and Juliet in their fame for English-speaking readers, but it is Scarlett who “springs alive in the first sentence … a fabulous, pixilated, one-of-a-kind creation.”  He locates Margaret Mitchell’s genius in her distilled focus, placing the Civil War “in the middle of Scarlett O’Hara’s living room.”  Perhaps it is Scarlett’s very self-centeredness, her “Machiavellian” determination, that permit the reader to experience this “Iliad with a Southern accent,” as Conroy calls it, nearly exclusively through her concerns.

Thankfully, Gone With the Wind, 75th Anniversary Edition, featuring the 1936 cover art for the novel, still includes Conroy’s wonderful Preface.


Read more about Scarlett O’Hara in The Fictional 100.

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