Misanthropic Movie Review: Angels and Demons

Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

Reader response is a wonderful style of literary criticism which allows the reviewer to just note down their personal reactions, even if those reactions occurred while watching the show at midnight, when we get sleepy and our inner five-year-old emerges.

This post doesn’t explain the plot step by step, but it does contain all the spoilers and all the sarcasm.

So, my reactions to the movie version of Angels and Demons, in order …

1. Oooh, these Catholics are so mysterious and sinister!

2. Science-y stuff is happening inside the big collider.  The people are speaking French.  They think the collider might blow everything up, but they press on anyway because it’s Science.

3. Now they have made antimatter. 

4. The messenger from the Vatican speaks English with a cool, ominous accent.  He seems to be perfectly fluent, but he can’t remember the word formídable.  The closest he can get is for-mi-dá-blay.  The professor has to translate for him.

5. The professor is really smart. He knows more about Catholic history than the Catholics themselves.  Seems legit.

6. The Illuminati were a bunch of honest truth seekers who were absolutely, positively not into the occult.  They were just rationalists and scientists who were persecuted by the Catholic Church.  Now they want to use the antimatter to blow up a small country (Vatican City), but that is totally justified because the Catholics branded a cross on the chests of five Illuminati back in the 1500s.

7. The Illuminati have kidnapped the four preferiti, a.k.a. Cardinals who are being considered to become the next Pope.  The other Cardinals are in conclave.  The Great Elector, the leader of these, is obviously the bad guy.  He doesn’t want to evacuate St. Peter’s Square, even though it clearly might be a good idea.  He has “I WANT TO BE POPE” written on his forehead, and it’s possible he is behind this whole scheme.  He either works for the Illuminati, or is more likely using them. 

8. The Illuminati assassin is torturing the preferiti one by one and leaving them around Vatican City for the Professor to find.

9. VATICAN CITY SCAVENGER HUNT!!!

10.  Wow, I am just learning so much from this movie.  I had NO IDEA that the church adopted the symbols and holidays of previous pagan religions, or that Dec. 25 was originally … oh, wait.  Yes I did.  I wrote an article about it here.

11.  Also, English was the language of rebels and mavericks, like Shakespeare and Chaucer.  (Chaucer????)

12.  Honestly.  There are no admirable characters in this movie.  Not the Great Elector, not the Komandant of the Swiss guard, not the Illuminati assassin because torture, not the Professor because he always looks like everyone is getting on his last nerve with all this religion stuff … The only admirable character is a young priest who was the Pope’s protégé and who confusingly still loves the church as a place of simple people full of compassion even though he admits the church has “always sought to impede progress.”  I’ll bet he apostatizes before the end.  Either that or he becomes the next Pope.

13.  The Pope was murdered, by the way.  Turns out he didn’t really have a stroke.  I think we are supposed to feel sorry for him (or for the protégé), but the scene when they open his coffin displays a black, swollen tongue protruding from his mouth and spreading a stain over the rest of his face.  Clearly super symbolic.

14.  Speaking of symbolism, in one scene the Professor gets trapped in the Vatican Archives.  To preserve the ancient books there, oxygen is kept to a low level and the walls are lined with lead.  When the power goes off, the electronic doors lock.  The professor has to break out of this hall of old books where he cannot breathe or communicate with the outside world, or he will literally die from being stifled. The only way he can break out is to push a heavy bookcase full of priceless artifacts into the re-enforced glass, destroying these precious objects. 

Hmm, what ever could all of this symbolize?  Let me think …

15. OK, they have saved the one remaining preferitus.  And they have found the antimatter.  But – oh no! – they can’t replace the battery that will prevent an explosion, without possibly causing an explosion.

16.  The protégé is taking the antimatter up in a helicopter so the explosion doesn’t kill anyone!  He’s going to be martyred and made a saint!

17. Oh wait, he parachuted out!

18. But the explosion high over St. Peter’s Square is blowing his parachute all around! He’s going to die after all.

19. He survived!  Now the cardinals are finding an obscure bylaw that allows them to make him Pope. 

20.  But the Professor has just found a hidden video that shows the protégé was the one who hired the assassin!  He just made it look like an Illuminati plot!  It was him all along!

I did not see that coming.

21.  But the reasons he did it were the same old tired reasons we have been told all along.  He killed the Pope because the Pope was OK with the scientists making antimatter and the protégé thought it was blasphemous.

22. In other words, he did all this in order to impede progress because he thought it might diminish the power of the church. 

23.  The lady scientist feels guilty about having made antimatter because it was stolen by the assassin and almost used to kill thousands of people.  She wonders if they should go on making antimatter. 

The professor encourages her to make some more.  That’s good advice.  After all, what are the odds of something like this happening again?

24.  The Great Elector is now allowing the remaining preferitus to become Pope and is acting all nice & humble towards the Professor.  “Religion is flawed, but that’s because people are flawed.”

OK, I was wrong about the Great Elector.  Still, this feels like Dan Brown is trying to have it both ways.  He’s just spent an entire movie showing us that religious zeal is really really bad and destructive, but now he wants to say that it’s also not, with no reasons given.

Verdict: I ended up really enjoying this movie because it was so twisty.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it was a hatchet job.  Even the twists serve its purpose, because the person behind the evil plot turned out to be the character who seemed the most saintly and was certainly the most zealous.  He ends up setting himself on fire, murmuring, “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit” and then screaming and writhing like a demon as he burns.  If that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.

Making “Coffee” from Chicory

My own sketch of the wildflower chicory, done in pen and crayon

When I think about The End of the World as We Know It, one thing I worry about is the availability of coffee.

I am sure this is a concern of yours as well.  Assuming that you get through the Zombie Apocalypse, the EMP, the Rising Sea Levels, or whatever your personal big fear is, and find yourself among a group of scrappy survivors, I guarantee you some of them are going to want coffee.  It might even become a hot commodity.  Worth its weight in gold.

The Inspiration for this Project

The Change series is also known as the Emberverse series.

The project documented in this post was inspired by S.M. Stirling’s The Change series.  In the first book, Dies the Fire, the world of the 1990s is interrupted when all electronics, engines, and gunpowder suddenly cease to function.  At that point the series becomes alternate history.  The series migrates toward Game of Thrones style fantasy the longer it goes on, but the first few books especially are more in the post-apocalyptic genre, about people surviving and starting to rebuild society in the Northwest and in Northern California.  And once they get a steady food supply going, their coffee substitute is “roasted, ground chicory roots.”

I could probably find chicory coffee at a co-op type food store, but I want to try to make it myself.  That’s the only way I can learn about the process and find out if such a thing would be feasible.

Let’s go!

Lessons from the Chicory Experiment

Chicory is a wildflower that grows all along the highways in our region at certain times of year.  Though there is an abundant supply of it on the medians, that’s not the safest place to gather it in this pre-apocalyptic world where vehicles of all kinds are still whizzing by.  So I had to seek chicory on a back road.  In this picture, the plants with lavender colored flowers are chicory and the ones with white flowers are Queen Anne’s Lace.

Today’s weather is very humid, and it’s so hot that there is a heat advisory.  Also, it turns out that chicory grows surrounded by thistles and extremely sharp-bladed grass. 

Lesson 1: Gather chicory in the early morning, before the day gets hot.  Wear cowboy boots, not flip flops.

I assumed that chicory would have a taproot similar to a dandelion’s, so I brought a small trowel.  I couldn’t find my dandelion picking tool, so I brought a large screwdriver, which is almost as good for digging down beside the taproot to loosen the soil.

It turns out that chicory roots are similar to dandelion’s, but much larger, deeper, and woodier. 

Lesson 2: I probably could have brought a regular garden shovel instead.

Here is the chicory I gathered.  I have no idea how much “coffee” this quantity will make, but I’m hoping it will be enough for one cup.  Finding out is part of the purpose of this experiment.  I don’t have the time or energy to dig more due to having come at the wrong time of day.  Clearly, I have a lot to learn as a hunter/gatherer.

Next step. Google the process just to make sure I don’t accidentally poison myself by skipping a step. (We won’t be able to Google stuff after the apocalypse, which is all the more reason to do it now.)  The search takes me here.  Hank Shaw is a “hunter, angler, gardener, forager, and cook” and he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Uh-oh, he says you need to harvest chicory in the fall.  But he seems to have harvested some in the summer with no ill effects.  Onward.

Here are the roots after being washed.  I need to cut them into thin slices, dry them for two or three days in the sunshine, and then roast them as directed.  Cutting them yields mixed results.  Some have a woody core so tough that I have to saw it, with dirt trapped between this core and the outer, soft layer.  Others are softer, solid and cuttable all the way through, more like cutting a carrot.  My guess is that Hank’s nice, plump “root chicory” is more like this.

Lesson 3: Wild chicory might not be the way to go. It might be smarter to cultivate it.

My roots have yielded this measly tray of chicory slices. Following the expert, I sun them on the back of my vehicle.  They dry out for a few hours, and then promptly get rained on.  I sop them up with a paper towel and move the tray to our sun porch.

Lesson 4: Obvious.

After two days of drying on our sun porch, the chicory slices had visibly shrunk and felt dry. I put them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half.  During this time, the house filled with a curious warm malty smell, as predicted on Hank Shaw’s web site.  This was reassuring, because it meant that I was in fact roasting the right kind of root.  On the other hand, my family complained about the smell.

Lesson 5: There is going to be a lot of complaining around our house after the apocalypse.  But I kind of knew that already.

This is what the chicory roots looked like after about 90 minutes.  They look done.

Next, I ground the chicory in a food processor …

… And put it in a one-cup coffee filter.  As I had hoped, it was just the right amount for one mug.

As you can see, the roots don’t grind up nice and even like coffee grounds.  There are some bigger chunks, and then there’s some powder that’s as fine as French Press coffee or even baking powder or something.  Perhaps I could have gotten the chunks chopped up further if I’d been willing to grind them for longer, but as I was grinding, fine dust kept escaping from the food processor and coating the surrounding counter.  I stopped when I figured the grounds would be sufficient.  If you were grinding roast chicory in large quantities, there’d be certain to be a lot of dust.

If there were no electricity, I guess I’d be forced to crush it in my marble mortar:

I poured hot water over the grounds, and it worked great!  A very creditable cup of something that looks exactly like coffee.

The wet grounds, and the liquid itself, smell very smoky.   I’m going to try it black first, because after the apocalypse there is unlikely to be spare milk, let alone hazelnut creamer.

It tastes exactly as Hank Shaw describes it: “a brighter acidity than coffee and … ‘earthy.'”

I give a sip of it to my trucker husband, who ought to know about mediocre coffee.

Me: Does it taste like truck stop coffee?

Him: Truck stops couldn’t sell coffee if it tasted like this.

Well, it tastes OK to me.  But I might be slightly invested, seeing as how I made it.

I add milk and continue to drink.  It tastes most coffee-like when hot.  As it cools, it begins to taste more and more like … smoke. Now I realize I’ve had this before.  I think it was called “smoke tea.” It must have been chicory.  I like the flavor, but I realize it wouldn’t be for everybody.

But the bottom line is: I did it!  I did it!  I dug up a common wildflower and forced it to yield a coffeelike substance.  It was a bit of a project, but not hugely inconvenient and actually took less processing than I’ve heard real coffee takes. 

Lesson 6: It is possible to make a coffee substitute from chicory, even if you have little previous knowledge or skills.

Great Dads of History

Shout out to all the dads out there!  Happy Father’s Day!

Great dads are everywhere.  You might be one yourself.  But they are often invisible.  No one notices the person who does the job right.  If you are a great dad, you children may grow into well-adjusted adults.  They won’t become notorious for anything.  They won’t write a bitter poem about you like Sylvia Plath wrote about her dad.  They will probably not make history, unless your family is unlucky enough to get thrust into the historical spotlight (which is not an experience to seek out: see the ten Boom family, below).  They will just go quietly about contributing to society by being great citizens, moms and dads themselves.

This is why we so seldom hear about the great dads.

Here are three dads who, through accidents of history, had their great dadliness recorded.  One was the father to a daughter who wrote about him.  Another was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And the third wrote novels with his son.

Charles Ingalls: Rifle, Ax, and Fiddle

Charles Ingalls playing “mad dog” with his children.
Taken from the illustrated version of Little House in the Big Woods.

Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a friendly, adventurous, adaptable man with incredible amounts of energy and what might be described as “itchy feet.”  He had the perfect personality to survive and thrive as a pioneer.  He moved his family many times throughout Laura and her sisters’ childhood, shepherding his family through disaster after disaster on the American frontier.  (For example: floods, fires, tornadoes, blizzards, locusts, and malaria.)

Charles was able to build his family a cabin in single summer using just his ax. He shot game to provide food for them.  And wherever they went, he took his fiddle.  He was a gifted musician who used music, along with his indomitably cheerful personality, to keep his family’s spirits up.

Casper ten Boom: the Grand Old Man of Haarlem

Casper ten Boom lived his entire life in a narrow, cramped house in Haarlem, Netherlands.  The front room housed the family business, a watch repair shop.  Casper, was the “absentminded professor” type.  He was gentle and affectionate, beloved by the neighborhood children, eccentric and forgetful, a gifted watch repairer but a terrible businessman.  It was typical of him to work for weeks on a rare watch and then forget to send its owner a bill.  He was delighted that the shop across the street was stealing his business, because “then they will make more money!”

He had long white whiskers and little spectacles. Picture him looking like the old banker played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

When the Nazis took over Holland, Casper was still living in the Haarlem watch shop with two of his adult daughters, Betsie and Corrie.  Because the ten Boom family had so many connections in the city; were known as generous and helpful people; and had a great affection for the Jews (“God’s chosen people”), their house gradually became a hub for the resistance.  Its crazy floor plan made it the perfect place to build a bunker as an emergency hiding place for the handful of people that were always staying with them.

The ten Boom family were eventually betrayed and arrested.  A Nazi guard, seeing Casper’s age, tried to send him home on a promise of good behavior.  Casper responded, “If you send me home today, tomorrow I will open my door to the first person in need who knocks.”  He was arrested and died of a fever in prison. 

Casper’s daughter Corrie survived the concentration camps (Betsie did not) and later wrote a memoir about her family’s experiences, called The Hiding Place.  It’s an incredible story, but the most delightful parts of it to read are the early parts, where we watch Casper interact with his family and community.  He was truly a great dad.  Yet, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi takeover, few people today would know his name.

Dick Francis: Integrity in Life and Fiction

Dick Francis, a former jockey, wrote many terrific thrillers set in the world of horse racing.  Troubled father/son relationships often feature in his novels.  Francis was asked whether he had a troubled relationship with his own father, and he responded that to the contrary, the relationship was great.  “Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in troubled father/son relationships.” 

Francis’s main characters tend to be single men in their early 30s.  Some have more baggage than others, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of integrity.  They can’t tolerate allowing anything like cheating to happen, even when it puts them in harm’s way, and they can’t bring themselves to back down, even sometimes when facing torture.

In his later years, Francis wrote several novels with his son Felix.  The novel Crossfire (2010), from which this picture is taken, includes the dedication “to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have.”

Now, I’ll Bet You Know a Great Dad!

Leave a comment praising an unsung great dad that you know.

A Quirky, Personal, Annotated Reading List about Native Americans

Do You Get “Culture Crushes”?

I admit it: I get “culture crushes.”

My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture.  This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five.  By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover.  That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it. 

Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and then later, as an adult. 

This is an incomplete list on two counts.  First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read.  Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic.  I can think of at least six seven eight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down. 

As A Kid

  • North American Indians, by Marie and Douglas Gorsline, Random House, 1977.  This book was the introduction to Native American tribes and their lifestyles for my siblings and me.  It’s a good overview of the different cultural regions of North America, including a map at the beginning of the book.  For each region, it names one or two of the best-known tribes and gives a few pages of details about their lifestyle, beautifully illustrated.  The last page of the book is about sign language, which it says functioned as a lingua franca for the different Plains tribes.  It includes a number of illustrations of the different signs.  What could be more fun?
  • Runner for the King by Rowena Bastin Bennett, 1962. I must have been seven years old when I read this book.  I have no doubt that I picked it up because it featured my two favorite things: Indians, and the word “king.”  It takes place in the ancient Incan kingdom, but I didn’t know that at the time.  All I knew was that it did not disappoint. The boy on the front cover runs through rugged mountain landscapes.  He encounters a fellow runner who has been beaten and tied up by enemies, so the boy must run the next messenger’s leg of the journey as well as his own.  He has to climb over a rock slide.  At last, he makes it to the king with his message and is personally honored by the king. I now realize, looking at the drawing, that the boy’s face on this cover does not look particularly Incan.  It looks more like Peter Pan colored reddish brown.  But at the time, this boy – particularly this picture on the cover – instantly became my standard for fitness and beauty.  You’d laugh about that if you knew me, because I look less like this lean, fit, dark-haired runner, and more like … well, Shirley Temple.
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scholastic, Inc., 1935, 1953, 1963.  This is the Little House book in which the Ingalls family go into “Indian country,” homestead there for less than a year, and then are moved out by changing government policy, not too long after the same government has forced the Indians to leave.  This book has been called racist, but that is a foul slander.  It portrays a lot of complexity in the Ingalls family’s experience with the Indians.  Charles Ingalls, Laura’s “Pa,” in particular clearly respects the Indians.  He gently rebukes some other settlers when they speak of the Indians in a dehumanizing way, and he talks with enthusiasm about a buffalo hunt: “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” There is also a scene where Pa has been hunting a wildcat that he knows is hanging around the creek.  He needs to find and kill it so that it doesn’t attack his family.  He meets an Indian man, who gives him to understand with signs that three days ago he found the very cat and shot it out of a tree. 
  • Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Peter Buchard, Scholastic. Squanto’s story is truly an incredible one.  The scene I remember best from this book is that of Squanto trying to sleep on his first night in a British room.  The bed is too soft and uncomfortable.  Finally he sleeps on the floor.
  • The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.  An Indian boy and his father befriend a white boy who has been left on his own to manage the family’s new cabin until the rest of his family can join him.  The Indian boy teaches the white boy wood lore and such things as the signs that the different clans leave on trees.   The white boy teaches the Indian boy to read.  The Indian boy is really offended by the role of Friday in Robinson Crusoe, which rocks his new friend’s world.  
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  I don’t remember this one very well, but I know that I read it as a kid. It’s the story of an incredibly tough and resourceful girl surviving on her own on an island.  Catnip to Kid Me.
  • Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators, which just makes this book all the better.  This book is not primarily about Indians, but they do play an increasingly big role as the book progresses. Caddie befriends them and then ends up sneaking across the river to visit them and head off a conflict.
  • Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. Omri owns a small metal medicine cupboard that can bring his plastic toys to life.  When it does, he discovers that they are not toys but have actual lives and personalities of their own.  This series is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read.
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1973. This one barely makes it into the “childhood” category.  I read it in seventh grade, in a year when we read many books set in other cultures (such as The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart). And I Heard the Owl definitely belongs in that august company.  It rises to the level of literature.  Owl tells the story of Mark, a young priest who goes to serve a small Indian community in remote British Columbia.  My favorite scene is the one in which he suddenly realizes that some of the women are talking about him, in front of him, and protests that they’ve got their facts wrong.  He has acquired a passive knowledge of the language without really trying.  He must have quite a gift for languages indeed, because those coastal Native languages are really complex.

As An Adult

  • The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee both work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Joe is a tough old cynic. Jim is a young visionary. “Tony Hillerman was the former president of Mystery Writers of America and received its Edgar and Grand Master awards.  His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. He lived with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”  — From the jacket of A Thief of Time, Harper, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2009. Update: Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, is now continuing the Leaphorn and Chee series. I just finished Cave of Bones (2018) by her. It’s really good. Chee has married a fellow Navajo police officer, and Leaphorn is living with a white woman since his wife died of cancer earlier in the series. Anne Hillerman incorporates even more Navajo terms into the books than her father did, and the greeting (Ya’at’eeh) is now spelled with even more diacritic marks.
  • The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. and George McPeek, 1988.   Arthur H. is a Native pastor, recovering alcoholic, and boarding school survivor.  He has many excellent insights about unresolved grief, which he believes is the root cause of most of the problems facing Native individuals, families, and communities.
  • Bruchko by Bruce Olson, Charisma House, 1978, 2006.  Bruce Olson goes to live among the Motilone Indians of Colombia.  After much fruitless struggle to integrate, he is befriended by a remarkable young man his own age who tells Bruce his “heart name.”   In time, Christ comes to the Motlione in a way that is very organic to their culture.  This book is filled with goosebump-raising moments.
  • Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010.  Black Elk grew up in the Lakota tribe.  At the age of nine, he was given a troubling vision that essentially invited his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness.  He did not share this vision with anyone for several years.  He was present at the battle of Little Bighorn, and later traveled to England as a dancer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  Besides the illustrations done by the author, the book includes a historical drawing done by Red Horse and many authentic black and white photographs. 
  • Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger, 2014. Girls are disappearing from the Ojibwe reservation. Cork O’Connor goes off to find one of them, and ends up in North Dakota.
  • Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. A team of archaeologists discovers a lost Anasazi city and figures out what wiped the Anasazi out. There are no modern-day Indians among the main characters in this book, but near the end, one does play a key role.

Children’s Books Discovered As An Adult

I also love Little Runner’s mom.
  • Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker, pictures by Arnold Lobel, an I Can Read Book by Harper & Row Publishers, New York & Evanston, 1962.  Little Runner is an extremely relatable Iroquois boy whose main goal in life is to get some maple sugar.
  • Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman, 2012.  This legend explains why rabbit, who started out with a long, beautiful tail, now has a short, fuzzy one.  It also explains why cottonwood trees are full of “cotton.”  Like many Native legends, it contains a not-so-subtle warning about being proud, wanting our own way, and not listening to warnings from our elders.  “I will make it snow!  A-zi-ka-na-po!”
  • A Salmon for Simon by Better Waterton, illustrated by Ann Blades, copyright 1978, first Meadow Mouse edition 1990, first revised Meadow Mouse edition 1996, reprinted 1998. A Meadow Mouse Paperback, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, Ontario.  Simon, who lives in a village on the Pacific coast of Canada, has been trying all day to catch a salmon.  When he sees one drop from an eagle’s talons, he has to decide whether to eat it or save it. 

My New Favorite Person: Recently Deceased SciFi Author Gene Wolfe

I can’t believe that I didn’t know this guy existed until he died.

He wrote dense, “baroque” science fiction, and he helped to invent the machine that makes Pringles. What’s not to love?

On a more serious note, he cared for his wife as she was deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease. Many many people do similar things, and all of them are heroes.

No, I haven’t read his books yet, but after reading this obituary I am definitely going to look for them. I think that eating Pringles while reading them would be a fitting tribute.

Update: Since drafting this post, I have picked up The Land Across (2013) from the library. In it, an American travel writer goes to an unnamed Eastern European country to research for a book. He is met on the train by some border guards (possibly?) who confiscate his passport and then place him under house arrest for not having one. Things go downhill from there. On the plus side, there are spooks, including (possibly?) the ghost of Vlad the Impaler. What more could you ask? It’s a page turner, and Wolfe does a great job of rendering in English conversations that take place in the local language or in German. I would not call this book sci-fi (not yet anyway), but more of a thriller with supernatural elements.

Female Lord of the Rings Characters Ranked by Relatability

The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.

One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.

But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)

  1. (Most relatable) Rosie Cotton. Rosie, daughter of Farmer Cotton, is Sam Gamgee’s love interest not only in the movie but also in the book. She is a simple, sweet young peasant girl. When Sam returns from Mordor, she first chides him for having taken so long, and then says, “If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?” Pretty frustrating for Sam, but he likes her anyway. She just has no idea what he’s been through … and, really, how could she? Sam later marries Rosie and they go on to become a founding family in the next generation of the Shire. Rosie represents the Shire itself in all the wholesomeness and normality of its farm family life. She represents everything that Frodo and Sam went to Mordor in order to save. She is an ordinary good-hearted woman who makes a wonderful wife for Sam, the ordinary hero. That is why she wins the prize for Most Relatable.
  2. Goldberry, wife of Tom Bombadil, the “river daughter.” Goldberry is a sort of nymph, “slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.” She is a little less relatable than Rosie because of her great beauty, apparent immortality, and because she is a representation not of the farm but of the forest. However, her role is very similar to Rosie’s. Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest is a supernatural refuge for travelers who would otherwise be overcome by the wild otherness of the Old Forest. Goldberry plays a critical role in making this home. She maintains it, she serves food, she beautifies the home with her singing, her weaving, her wisdom, and her very presence there. Tom wanders all throughout the Old Forest, but in the end he always comes back to his home (and invites the hobbits there) because, as he says, “Goldberry is waiting.”
  3. Eowyn. Eowyn is the brave and beautiful niece of King Theoden of Rohan. (The Rohirrim are basically Vikings on horseback.) She feels trapped by the need to stay in the house and care for her elderly uncle. When the elderly uncle revives and goes off to fight against Mordor, Eowyn really really wants to go along. What she most fears, she says, is “a cage.” She disguises herself as a man, sneaks away with the army of Rohan, and ends up killing a demonlike creature on the battlefield, nearly losing her life in the process. Eowyn is generally the first female character people remember from The Lord of the Rings. Her restlessness is something that we’ve all felt, but her Nordic style of beauty, her superior horsewomanship and swordswomanship, and, especially, her extreme bravery are not qualities that most of us possess.
  4. Arwen. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is Aragorn’s childhood crush. Her role in the series is mostly symbolic. She represents the Elven colony that Elrond maintains in Rivendell, and hence, the whole glorious world of the Elves that is now fading away. She is an aristocrat, a queen, an ideal of beauty, grace and virtue that is completely unattainable (for everyone, of course, except Aragorn, who is himself an ideal of virtue).
  5. Galadriel. Galadriel, I have been told, plays the role in The Lord of the Rings that Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Everything I just said about Arwen is also true of Galadriel, except that in Galadriel’s case, she is not an ideal that we are meant even to try to attain to. Instead, we are (not to mince words) simply meant to worship. Gimli the dwarf discovers this when he enters Lothlorien (heaven on earth) expecting to find a hostile witch. On meeting Galadriel, he has a true spiritual experience and is immediately converted. After this, he carries a lock of her hair with him and is ready to fight anyone who criticizes her. Galadriel, in other words, is a sort of female God figure, a spiritual mother who dispenses wisdom to the travelers and who gives Frodo a light that saves him in the lair of Shelob (who, being a spider, did not make this list). Galadriel would have been the Least Relatable person on this list, but we have one more …
  6. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Ha! You didn’t think anyone could be less relatable than Galadriel? You have forgotten Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the odious relative of Bilbo and Frodo. Lobelia had always hoped somehow to legally get her hands on the comfortable ancestral hall of Bag End. She nearly inherited it when Bilbo disappeared for a year in The Hobbit. She was very annoyed when Bilbo then willed Bag End to Frodo, and made quite a nuisance of herself to Frodo by saying nasty things as only a bitter, feisty, disappointed older relative can. Before Frodo goes off on his adventure, he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and Lobelia cannot conceal her triumph. She does redeem herself, however, by getting herself thrown in the local jail for defying a constable after Saruman takes over the Shire. When she gets out, she is met with a standing ovation and bursts into tears: “She had never been popular before.” … OK, I admit it, much of Lobelia’s bad behavior is actually very relatable if we are honest with ourselves. But she beats Galadriel because, even more than Galadriel, Lobelia is not a character that anyone would aspire to be.

Aaand, This Is Where Graham Hancock and I Finally Part Ways

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Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.

It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.

Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.

I have not read America Before, but my impression is that this review represents it accurately. I have two reasons. The first is that it is (believe it or not) a sympathetic review. The reviewer, Jason Colavito, knows and likes Hancock and is clearly familiar with the body of Hancock’s work.

In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas.
But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work.  …
Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …

“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito

And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.

In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.

I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.

So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.

Four Old Books that will Blow Your Mind in 2019

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‘Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)

Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled.  She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom.  Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess. 

Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.  As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends.  But everything changes when Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.

‘Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters.  Like me, you will probably pick it up because when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one.  And you do.  But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.

This book is a perfect addition to the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at their beliefs with a critical eye.  That’s what I try to do in my books.  Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)

If you read the back of the book, you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom.  Well, not quite.  For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is only half of the novel.

The other half is about Levin, a wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the girl he loves.  His long, slow upward trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.

The writing in this novel is amazing (assuming that you get a good translation).  The psychology is beautiful.  It’s also an example of a successful omniscient narrator.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

This book was first published in 1678.  The language, therefore, is more modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as elegant and succinct as either one.  

It is an allegory of one man’s spiritual journey.  It is anything but boring! 

Take the incident where Giant Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle.  He beats them, he starves them, he tells them they will never get out.  It is Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to Hopeful.  The giant encourages the two men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do so.  He also shows them the skulls of past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed. 

All in all, if you have ever been through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body.  This giant and his wife literally sit up at night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.

When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them.  But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.

The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)

Hercule Poirot is the more famous of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple.  All the other characters, being British, consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner.  All the younger and more worldly characters underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village all her life.  They think she is likely to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience.  In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of human nature in her 60+ years of life.  As she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.

Miss Marple’s method of crime detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature.  People she meets remind her of other people that she has once known.  She can recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they will do based on these past people’s behavior.  She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present situation.  Her method of thinking about crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.  Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories.  You could say that Poirot is a plotter and Marple a pantser.   But they both get their man in the end.

Miss Marple is also aided by her fantastic British manners.  She is an amazingly good listener.  She is excellent at drawing people out.  People cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will tell you the truth.

Miss Marple might be a little old lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.  In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”

I want to be Miss Marple when I grow up.