Thursday, May 28, 2009
Monday, May 18, 2009
The Civil War is the gift that keeps on giving to history buffs. One of the delights of my impending second half century commencing next month will be to continue to read accounts of the memoirists who came out of it. In my opinion, and I'm not alone, this post concerns what I think is the best of them, by far, even if most people never heard of him. So, no, it's not General Grant's.
General Grant's Personal Memoirs is often considered the cream of the group, as well as a literary masterpiece. I can't agree. Surely the story of how he wrote it while dying of cancer in order to provide for his family and (I suppose, less nobly, it helped secure his place in history), and Mark Twain's help in publishing it, is an enticing story. But, like many memoirs, I sometimes had trouble slogging through it, and, here I admit heresy – although I liked it, in general, I skimmed parts of it. Yes, you can jump all over me and say, well, how can you know? I read enough and I'm pretty sure I didn't miss anything important either. I can't recall learning anything I didn't already know, nor having read any part of it that just made me sit up and say, wow. He won the war. Isn't that enough?
This isn't like one of my Jefferson posts. I liked the Personal Memoirs well enough. It is well written and Grant is about as important figure as we have from that time. And, I like Grant and am willing to agree with most superlatives about him. He was a great general well suited to his enormous task, one of the best presidents (in my top ten), occasionally very witty (although not in the book) and a good person too, if occasionally not the best judge of character. It’s just that I believe that the memoir’s highest accolades may be to some degree made out of respect for him and the conditions under which it was written, rather than for the book itself. Still, if you are insistent that it is a classic, and wonderfully written, would you point me to where?
I stand with those few (at least) who think Edward Porter Alexander’s memoirs the better of the two, and perhaps best of all. Porter was a reasonably big player in the war – he fought from Bull Run to Appomattox and even out West in between, but he certainly was not a major player in the Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Grant, Meade, McClellan, etc. mode. Yet, entering the war at age 25, he rocketed up the ranks to brigadier general at age 28 through talent and energy. He was wonderfully respected by his superiors, including by the gold stamp, General Lee.
A graduate of
Like everyone in the Confederate armies (and like in our revolution, there were really two separate armies - the professional and the militias) he suffered privation, and was constantly threatened with loss of life, severe injury and the pleasure of watching his countrymen chopped to bits on a regular basis. But, if his rememberances are not delusions, he had a pretty good time of it, loving the science of artillery, the new and precise technologies, military strategy, well executed battle plans and, perhaps most of all, the camaraderie that comes with war. He was no doubt an unrepentant Confederate, believed deeply to his dying day that they were fighting for recognized rights (no screeds against slavery, unfortunately) and even when he was a successful man in his later years writing for his family, he seemed perfectly comfortable talking about the affection his “darkies” had for him. He was a man of his time.
Despite the sleepless nights or in the rain, the lack of food and other agonies, he never wavered, at least as he recalls many decades later. However, he wasn’t a fanatic. He delighted in his few opportunities for a good sleep, a great meal or spending time with people of whom he was fond. And, when he was shot or was thrown off his horse and got a furlough, no one could have been happier. There was no false guilt from being away from his post when the South needed him. He missed his wife and little children too much for that.
There are actually two memoirs, the later written but earlier published one stemming from the earlier written but later published one. EPA started the larger project for his family and completed all but adding the figures he spoke (number of troops, deaths, things like that), but, then a few years later turned it into the critically acclaimed Military Memoirs (1907), well known for its analytical point of view. When it came out, The New York Times review said – “This latest “Confederate memoir” is a clear-cut, non-partisan and fearless piece of military criticism.” That’s an accurate picture. MM’s well received analysis have now long been part of military discussion.
Much later in this past century, and of course way after his and his children's deaths, it became clear from EPA's records that there was an earlier and slightly incomplete book, which, thanks to great scholarship has been painstakingly put together from packets of papers, after they succeeded in put it in order. It was published only in 1989.
This is the book now known as Fighting for the Confederacy, written in the late 1800s at EPA's daughter’s urging for family purposes only when he was working down in Nicaragua at the request of President Grover Cleveland Alexander (not a relative, but a friend) in an arbitration effort. Most of FFTC is taken from his own memories, and some from a diary he kept. He does not stop at personal observation and like all writers of a sweeping history, he often relied on the recollections and records of other combatants and authors for matters of which he was not present. There are still many blanks in the book for details never completed by EPA and that may seem odd at first. Although the lack of facts and figures at his fingertips bothered him when writing (he frequently repeats that he was writing far from his books and records) its really the kind of information that professionals might want and 99.9 % of readers have no need of and would have no recollection of a few seconds later. Besides, if you really care, you only need look in the notes where the editors have supplied the missing information.
Or, you could read MM, which was written for publication and professionally done. In it, he determined to publish his view of the war as one would a chess match, determining, for better or worse, the accomplishments and mistakes of both sides.
EPA had already contributed in magazines about the war and was an accomplished writer, although he did not make a living at it (he was quite financially successful in life, and had several hats, including planter). FFTC is the better of the two books, despite that it was written for his family and never intended to be professionally published. It contains the same analysis as MM, but also adds much color, starting from the beginning of his life through the end of the war, when, returning home after a long detour through the North where he foolishly first attempted to find his way to Brazil in order to fight there, and is greeted by his beloved wife, who he affectionately dubs “Miss Teen” throughout. His stories about his personal experiences, the colorful characters, his retelling of well known (at that time) anecdotes and the military analysis and battle details, all mixed together, makes it the great read it is. It’s never boring, something I don't think I can say of any Civil War memoir I've ever read, and you learn something with every turned page.
Through EPA we see the greats of the Confederacy, and sometimes also Northern generals, but as he and the men saw them, not the mythology. Indeed, much of the Confederate soldier worship of Lee and Jackson is found here, but so are criticisms of them, something missing in the work of many other former confederates (although the first edition of General James Longstreet’s memoirs had come out roughly ten years earlier and were necessarily a defense of his own conduct which required criticism of some others, particularly General Lee; but, admittedly, he had a greater bias).
Before giving you a taste of EPA himself, there are a few special criticisms he makes that has drawn attention. Probably most audacious is his treatment of Stonewall Jackson, a warrior par excellence that men like me grow up worshipping for some good reasons (I leave aside as usual the schizophrenia required that allows us to be so enamored of those who supported slavery). And, EPA is clearly a
The first of these occurred during the week long battle known as the Seven Days in 1862, by far the longest battle of the war until 1864, when Grant came East and began the non-stop part of the war. That EPA felt strongly about his opinion on this point is obvious from his repetition of it. I lost count of the times he mentioned it.
Actually, I believe EPA is not only mostly wrong in this, but that is evident from his own work. The sabbath stop took place days earlier than Jackson's failure to show. EPA himself reports a scene of a subordinate trying to urge
You do not need to rely on my appreciation of the facts to agree. Two renowned Civil War scholars, Gary W. Gallagher, in his The Richmond Campaign of 1862 and Douglas Southall Freeman, in his R.E. Lee, detail Jackson’s overwhelming exhaustion at that time (while still performing magnificently overall) beyond any reasonable argument, and link it to his one failure in the Seven Days. No doubt, taking off Sunday to go to church was not a good idea. However, the following week was so filled with required wakefulness, including two sleepless nights Jackson rode back and forth to conference with Lee, that when he was finally forced to sleep through a battle, his previous break almost certainly made no difference at all.
Of course, if one of Jackson’s generals or men had done the same thing – slept when they should have been fighting or even marching, he would have arrested and charged them. Which brings us to EPA’s second and fairer criticism. Jackson pushed his men as hard as he pushed himself (their exhaustion was as bad or worse as his), and, for Jackson, even something like a cold hungry soldier leaving the lines of a march to get a coat from a fallen Yankee or something to eat, was a crime worthy of court martial. In one episode,
EPA does not treat Lee as a porcelain doll either, although he is as profuse in his praise as he was for anyone. At one point he comments that some people think being too critical of Lee only means not saying that everything he did was perfect. He attributes a few mistakes to Lee,
most at Gettysburg (in allowing J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry to wander on a mission for a while; in allowing Pickett’s charge to happen without proper information, and in not trying to get Meade to attack him instead of visa versa), but even worse later on in allowing Grant to escape after his punishing loss at Cold Harbor and to cross the James and set up in front of Petersburg, without quickly moving against him. Given the way the war was going at that point in 1864, and the possibility of a
EPA was also quick to praise Grant, clearly seeing him as the only Northern general with the vision and understanding to win the war for them, but also criticized him for several times splitting his forces, when a tremendous blow by concentrated troops at one end of a battlefield would have ended the war on more than a few occasions.
For the most part, EPA is not out just to criticize, but is plentiful with praise, particularly for his Southern compatriots whom he knew well. However, he didn’t seem to spare anyone when he thought they made a mistake. One of the actors he seems to praise the most, and whose wisdom he clearly respected, was James Longstreet, Lee’s “Warhorse,” aka Old Pete. Though EPA had several bosses, he several times noted where he thought that Longstreet had the better of the argument – at
EPA mostly defends Longstreet from his critics, without trying to offend them himself (many old Confederates had it in for Longstreet, who picked up his friendship with Grant and worked for the Union after the war), and details how right to the end Longstreet stuck by Lee and would have fought to the very last man, even after he had had been shot through the neck and lost the use of one arm for the rest of his life. I can think of few instances EPA found fault with Longstreet, although he points out how he completely misconceived his orders at Seven Pines and thereby probably lost the victory for them (it was pretty much a draw). However, he also weakly excuses Longstreet for a terrific mistake out West, because he believes, without any real evidence that I can see, that the plan was forced upon him. My personal read is that Longstreet was among the South’s best men (Lee seemed to prize him only after
Now that I have already committed heresy in the Civil War world (at least as far as the North is concerned) by not calling Grant's memoirs great writing, I have to say that I would not call EPA a great writer either, just a very good one; there are too many clichés and more than a few overwritten sentences (although, again, I have to remind myself that it was all a first draft not to be published). Yet, with that caveat, I can't think of a memoir I've enoyed more or one from which I learned more about military tactics and strategy, small pieces of period knowledge, the personalities of the generals, the day to day lives of the men, and so on.
I think I can put my finger on the difference between EPA's and Grant's memoirs. Grant wrote as a hoary old soldier and former president in a matter of fact style (I counted six paragraphs of the first fifteen in the book starting with the word "my"). He was conscious of his place in history and had a tremendous sense of dignity. He had undergone horrifying pressure, and borne it all. It was a hard job with terrific consequences and he wanted to reflect that appropriately. But, it had been a job, however necessary. In Chapter II of his memoirs he wrote - " A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect." In the conclusion he stated - "But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future." That type of general profound statement is not what makes a book great.
To the contrary, EPA, even as an older man, was remembering the best days of his life. He was still a very young man during the war, even though people grew up faster then, and although his own responsibilities were at times immense, the fate of the Confederacy, much less most battles, did not rely on him alone. Through all the death and destruction, he remained a happy warrior and the memories exhilarated throughout his life. And, it's infectious, which is why his book is so moving in spirit and action. Besides, who would you expect another soldier to pal around with, be themselves, and give great material to for a future book -- fun loving young Alexander or placid and ponderous old Grant?
The difference between the two memoirs can be readily seen as to their estimates of commanders. Grant's comments are made in short paragraghs one after another near the end of the book, seemingly as filler, and you learn nothing you could not have picked up in many places. There is some analysis of a few generals, but they are wooden and without examples. In EPA, the estimates of the leaders is frequent, interspersed and virtually always illustrated with personal example. It makes a big difference.
Time to let EPA speak for himself. I chose personal anecdotes as opposed to his detailed and exciting battlefield reports as these are most unique to him. First, a story from when he was just a young teenage boy from which we can see how much life has changed for the young, at least for the advantaged.
My feelings were so much enlisted [about an election] that I got into a quarrel with two of the ‘town’ boys, Jim Hester & Ben Kappell, which came very near ruining my life.
I was told that these two had armed themselves with pistols & intended to whip me. I borrowed an old ‘pepper-box’ revolver from our ‘overseer,’ John Eidson, loaded it heavily, I got 6 special ‘Walker’s Anticorosive Caps’ for the nipples, instead of the common ‘G. D.’s’
It would be too long to detail the quarrel, but, indignant at being bullied by two older & larger boys, I at last came into collision with Jim Hester. He struck me over the head with a light ‘skinny-stick,’ breaking it. I drew my revolver &, aiming at his breast, pulled the trigger. It snapped, failing to explode the cap. Hester drew a single barrel pistol, while I tried another barrel, which also snapped. . . . (don’t worry, they both live and become good friends).
This one is from out West before the war:
I had a glorious chase after my first buffalo. Our first sight of them was some 50 miles west of
This odd occurrence was also from before the war, but is somewhat typical of the eclectic anecdotes he shares throughout:
But the excitement of the winter was caused by the going crazy of my intimate associate John Ector, who lived with the Ragans in the cottage adjoining us on the right. . . . Some time early in February 1861 his conduct began to be a little peculiar at times. He got excited upon religious subjects & began to be a little peculiar at times. He began to show that exaggerated self appreciation which is so often a sign of incipient insanity. At last it became necessary to have him watched constantly, & one night they sent for me about 4 A.M/ to come over, for he had a violent fit & had driven two soldiers who were nursing him & Maj. Ragan out of the house with a poker, breaking bones of one man’s hand. I went over, hurriedly, in dressing gown & slippers, & got him in his room & disarmed him, but had to stay with him till breakfast time, at 8:30 A.M. , when he insisted on going over to my house, to get my guns & pistol, to kill all the people on the post whom he thought were plotting against him.
I know the following beliefs aren't the general philosophy now, but before, during and even after the war for quite a while, it was still a strongly held belief and not just in the South:
I think it is even now admitted by all candid & unprejudiced Northern writers that when the states formed the
We had the right therefore to secede whenever we saw fit, & it was truly for our liberty that we fought. Slavery brought up the discussion of the right in Congress & in the press, but the South would never have united as it did in secession & in war had it not been generally denied at the North & particularly in the Republican party.
His view on the start of the war:
The first hostile act upon either side was the act of Maj. Robert Anderson who, without orders or authority, & for actual reasons that God only knows, about Christmas 1860 spiked the guns of
But the defensive case of the South does not even rest here. She made no hostile retort to
But the South never struck back before a second act was committed.
Here he relates a strange coincidence of the war which I’ve never seen in a first hand report elsewhere, and for good reason, as EPA by chance happened to be one of the few in a position to notice it among those who were present at the start and end of the
And now I will stop the narrative a bit to tell of what I this one of the most remarkable coincidences of the war which started at Bull Run, the sight of the first real Virginia battle and ended at Appomattox C. H. . . .
Well those were the very first cannon shot fired between the two great
And he had been both out of sight & out of mind for over two years after . . . when whom should I meet the yard . . . but Maj. McLean. He was a short, stout little fellow & with a face easily remembered. I said, “Hello!
I have been to McLean's house in Appomattax C. H. It still looks like a nice place to live and was fairly remote. I can see why he moved there and appreciate how annoyed he must have been when the war found him at last.
Here’s EPA trying to save a Northern prisoner who had come down to watch the North whip the South at the
What’s the matter, Colonel,” said
When and where could this following scene happen in
It was about six o’clock when the rear of our column was practically up, & Gen. Jackson at last gave the order to Rodes to move. Immediately a bugle sounded “Forward,” & it was taken up & echoed through the woods by other bugles in every direction. These bugles do not seem to have heard by the enemy – or if heard they were attributed to their own cavalry. For the first intimation they are said to have received of our advance was appearance of deer, turkeys, rabbits, &c. running out of the woods ahead of our lines.
One story was told of a young lady, who was not allowed to buy hay, for the family milk cow, without a permit. She applied at headquarters for the permit, but it was refused unless she would take the oath of allegiance. She demurred to that, but Gen. Milroy insisted, saying that “this wicked rebellion must be crushed,” to which she answered, “If you expect to crush this rebellion by starving John Harman’s old cow you may try it & be damned to you."
I mean no defense of EPA’s unapologetic Southern stance and principles, some of which are difficult to swallow, particularly as he was writing some 40 years later, but, as I notice with people I know, racial prejudice has long legs. Here, he talks about disciplining his rented (and apparently loyal) slave, Charlie:
The only incident I recall is my giving my darkey, Charley, a small licking for getting drunk, on some apple jack he had managed to purloin from our hospital stores. That was the second & last time I ever had to punish him. The first was a year before at Keach’s near
Late in the war, Lee and EPA disagree about the time of a meeting and we see that, even though EPA was sure of his facts, eventually, he knew when to shut up:
By that time we were at the road, where Gen. Lee was sitting on old Traveller waiting for me, & three or four dark figures near were either staff or couriers. I remember the conversation very vividly. “Good morning, General Alexander. I had hoped to find you waiting in the road for me on my arrival.” This was said with the very utmost stiffness & formality. “Yes, Sir! I was all ready & might have been here just as well, but you told me last night that you’d start at two o’clock, & it’s not near that yet, so I did not hurry.” Which I said as good-naturedly & blandly as I knew how. “One o’clock was the hour, Sir, at which I said I would start!” This was said with a very severe emphasis.
“I misunderstood you then, General, I thought you said two.” “One o’clock, Sir, was the hour!” This was so emphatic that I concluded to let him have the last word & I said no more.
EPA was a true believer, make no mistake. Here he defends the South’s treatments of black prisoners in a way that just seems just too credulous. Then again, he does make worse charges against his own, so perhaps I am just showing my biases as well in questioning his appraisal:
About this time, there arose some trouble between the Confederate & Federal authorities about the treatment of prisoners. I believe it was claimed by them that we had put Negro prisoners to work upon intrenchments where they were exposed to fire. If that is true it was unjustifiable but I do not think it true. At least I never saw or heard of such a thing in our army. Our men had sometimes shot Negro troops when they could & would have taken prisoners if they had been white, but so far as I know once delivered to the provost guard they were treated as white prisoners.
One of the most unloved and underreported facts about the war was
At that date, Feb. 9th , Mr. Lincoln practically offered the South four hundred million dollars as compensation for the slaves set free, & any other reasonable political conditions they might choose to name, if she would return to the Union. But our committee was under instructions. The president & cabinet had absolutely forbidden our delegates to accept any terms, or even to consider any, short of our independence.
Good thing they turned it down too as the war ended on much better terms after a military solution. There is some controversy over that whole point about what Lincoln offered and I don't intend to go into it here. I have tried with the above quotes to show you things you can find in EPA which are not garden variety Civil War history and thus to increase its value. The truth is, a great deal of FFTC is battle descriptions, and they are wonderfully done. Many readers will undoubtedly find his analysis of most of the major battles the most interesting part of his work (as I did). I always ask myself a question when reading through almost any non-fiction work – am I learning anything? The answer here is quite positive. While not hiding EPA’s Southern bias as to the rightness of their fight, I will end with a quote from The New York Times review of Military Memoirs when it came out in 1907, and quarrel only with the too wishful conclusion of the first sentence:
“There is no trace of bitterness in his book, no regret at the final outcome, but on the other hand a willing and even outspoken acquiescence in what seems to the author the better results of Northern victory. If every man who gave up the fight at
Thursday, May 14, 2009
To the best of my memory I was taught to read from books written by two women. The first of these was Born Free by Joy Adamson and the second Mythology by Edith Hamilton. Adamson and Hamilton were both remarkable women and I will perhaps deal with them another day. I really just want to quote from Hamilton’s Mythology, published first in 1942 and still being re-published today. It might be the most popular guide to Greek and Roman Mythology out there, although Bullfinch’s might have something to say about that. It also has a short section at the end of the book on Norse mythology. Discussing the Elder Edda, which might very, very loosely be termed the Norse Bible, is this interesting, perhaps prophetic tidbit:
“The Elder Edda is much the more important of the two [eddas]. It is made up of separate poems, often about the same story, but never connected with each other. The material for a great epic is there, as great as the Iliad, perhaps even greater, but no poet came to work it over as Homer did the early stories which preceded the Iliad. There was no man of genius in the Northland to weld the poems into a whole and make it a thing of common beauty and power: no one even to discard the crude and the commonplace and cut out the childish and wearisome repetitions. There are lists of name in the Edda which sometimes run on unbroken for pages. Nevertheless the somber grandeur of the stories comes through in spite of the style. Perhaps no one should speak of ‘the style’ who cannot read ancient Norse; but all the translations are so alike in being singularly awkward and involved that one cannot but suspect the original of being responsible, at least in part. The poets of the Elder Edda seem to have had conceptions greater than their skill to put them into words. Many of the stories are splendid. There are none to equal them in Greek mythology, except those retold by the tragic poets. All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism.”
Little did Hamilton seem to know as she wrote in the early 1940s, some linguistic genius, who did read ancient Norse and related languages, and was a renowned expert on Beowulf among other classics, was already writing such an epic. His name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. His masterpieces, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ring as well as the less celebrated prequel, The Silmarillion, tells the tale of ancient mythological civilizations clashing, drawing out from this Oxford philogist breathtaking knowledge of his great loves – Norse mythology, his native England and numerous languages.
That this was Tolkien’s aim is made clear by Tolkien himself: “I have tried to modernize the myths and make them credible.” He succeeded wildly, and although it seems little known by many of his hundreds of millions of fans, he has given longer life to traditions that would be much less known in the world today were it not for his work, even though most people will never crack a binding on either Edda to read his main source.
There are endless books (not to mention webpages) on Tolkien and his work, and, many are interesting, although I have not yet found one that I would say was both comprehensive and delightful. The closest I’ve found yet are the 1969 (soon after Tolkien became celebrated) Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings by a not so good fantasy writer but better editor named Lin Carter, who died 20 years ago, and, a series of books by Tolkien’s own son, Christopher, which chronicle the history of the writing of the epic stories. Carter’s work deals more with Tolkien’s sources and predecessors and the son’s work with Tolkien’s own development of the books themselves. I would recommend Carter’s short book if you have mild interest in Tolkien’s influence and the development of fantasy, or, sitting in a library and skimming the growing list of Christopher’s Tolkien’s works. They are deliberately ponderous and repetitious, in his effort to be complete in showing how his father wrote these works from the early 1900s and constantly revised them, but contain much fascinating information. They are extremely worthwhile, but only for a real fan. But, I must admit, I have not read all the books out there on Tolkien and there may be some gems I have missed. I would also recommend the works of Tom Shippey, who followed Tolkien in the same chair at Oxford and worked with him.
Instead of writing an even remotely comprehensive account about LOTR, I have two propositions, each subjective and unprovable, but strongly felt by me. One, that the Lord of the Rings is the “best” book of the 20th century (obviously not my idea; not only has he topped many such polls, but, Tom Shippey already wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, which makes the same point); but more so, two, the books are far deeper and operate on more levels than many fans suspect. Which reminds me of one of my favorite LOTR lines, spoken of Cirdan, the elf lord who waited by the Grey Havens to take home elves returning to the undying lands – “He saw farther and deeper than any in Middle-earth.” I have sometimes suspected that Cirdan was an avatar for Tolkien - not that he so intended -- seemingly sitting and watching the events of the Third Age of Middle Earth unfold, without participating, neither omniscient, nor ignorant, but more knowledgeable about what had and was going to transpire than any other of the wise.
I support my own two propositions as if they were one and break them down into arbitrary categories.
Popularity – Popularity does not itself make for a great work. The Harry Potter series, for example, is phenomenally popular, and I certainly enjoyed them, but there is no more historical or mythological depth to them than there is for Smurfs or Snuffleupagus. I cringe when they are mentioned in the same breath with Tolkien’s works, although they are both fantasy and deal with many of the same themes. I do not consider the Potter books great (although a lot of fun) unless you define it by popularity and financial success alone. Then it is the greatest, bar none, and we should probably forget Shakespeare too.
While popularity is not necessary for a book to be great, or, greatness automatic if it is popular, it certainly means something. People want to read it. And if people don't want to read it, it is much harder to call a book or author "the best." Tolkien’s works have been best sellers for nearly 50 years. They are read all over the world and in many different languages. They have spawned not only three of the most popular movies ever made, but inspired probably thousands of copy cat novels, some bordering on plagiarism, by those who wanted to write their own tales of elves and dwarves. Not to mention, books commenting on Tolkien or his work have become a cottage industry. Help me with this, dear reader. Is there another 20th century author whose works have inspired so many others to write about him (note to idiots – Shakespeare and Dickens didn’t write in the 20th century)? Let me know. Maybe I’m missing someone. Perhaps we have to go back to Twain and Dickens to find any other modern author so seriously studied and written about. Anyway, I would hardly be alone in my belief that LOTR was the best book(s) of the last century, as poll after poll has shown Tolkien and his works in the English speaking world up at or near the top, even in this century.
LOTR has been rated in a number of polls as the best of various categories, particularly in the British Commonwealth. The London Times’ 50 greatest British authors since 1945 rated him sixth (although, other than George Orwell, I can’t fathom the top 5 – a poet, Philip Larkin, was first – critics know so little). Or take the Modern Library’s 100 best novels. It doesn't make the critic's list at all. But, LOTR is number 4 in the reader’s list. Since most books are written for readers, not critics, I take this as far more important. I snipped the following from Wikipedia, minus the links and footnotes:
“The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s and has remained so ever since, ranking as one of the most popular works of fiction of the 20th century, judged by both sales and reader survey. In the 2003 "Big Read" survey conducted by the BBC, The Lord of the Rings was found to be the "Nation's Best-loved Book". Australians voted The Lord of the Rings "My Favourite Book" in a 2004 survey conducted by the Australian ABC. In a 1999 poll of Amazon.com customers, The Lord of the Rings was judged to be their favourite "book of the millennium". In 2002 Tolkien was voted the 92nd "greatest Briton" in a poll conducted by the BBC, and in 2004 he was voted 35th in the SABC3's Great South Africans, the only person to appear in both lists. His popularity is not limited to the English-speaking world: in a 2004 poll inspired by the UK's "Big Read" survey, about 250,000 Germans found The Lord of the Rings to be their favourite work of literature.”
Probably one hundred and fifty million copies of LOTR have been sold since the early 1950s and another one hundred million copies of The Hobbit, making him either the first or second most read author ever before J.K. Rowlings (with modern populations and marketing, I wouldn’t know how to compare) – maybe Dickens has been read as much or more (and A Tale of Two Cities has sold more copies than even LOTR) but the numbers are comparable. Of course, none of this mentions the movies, seen by millions as well, and which gave the books a second life. As much as I enoyed the movies, Peter Jackson could not bring into them some of the facets of the LOTR that make it so wonderful for me, as I discuss below.
Influence - If you go to the bookstore and flip through the fantasy aisle, you will be struck at how many publishers seek to use Tolkien’s name to puff their own artists ("The new Tolkien" – "The best since Tolkien" – "Tolkien’s heir") much like mystery writers are forever being compared with John LeCarre.
I am not suggesting that Tolkien invented the fantasy genre, or even what is commonly called "sword and sorcery." Far from it. He was writing out of a long tradition. He simply did it better than anyone else, fortified with his mastery of language and mythology. However, even his modernization of myth and attempt to make credible the Northern myths was not unique. For example, the multi-talented William Morris published The Well at the World’s End (1896) when Tolkien was a little boy. It deeply influenced him. One letter to his wife long before LOTR indicates he was attempting to write something along the lines of Morris’s work (indeed, Morris had a “Gandalf” and even a horse named “Silverfax,” just a shade away from Tolkien’s Shadowfax). Another legendary fantasy writer, Sir William Haggard Rider, wrote The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, a supercharged story which takes the best parts from Icelandic sagas and leaves the boring parts out. Tolkien acknowledged that Rider’s She had an influence on him. Rider and Morris are among my favorite writers of heroic fantasy and but two examples. In my opinion, though, there are few others worthy, and it is a genre that usually disappoints me, because the writing is neither drenched in history nor mythology, only the modern appearence of it, and often not even well written. Here’s my own very short list of the best works of “sword and sorcery,” which were not written by Tolkien:
- The Once and Future King ("TOAFK") by T. H. White. It can be found in a single volume, but has also been published as a trilogy. I recommend reading the first volume, The Sword and the Sorceror, in a solitary volume first, because of a wonderful chapter for some reason not included in the collection. And please do not read the posthumously published The Book of Merlin, which was god awful, and not in any real sense part of the story. Many years ago I thought TOAFK, based on the King Arthur legends, might be even better than Tolkien, but that was before I began to understood LOTR on some different levels. Although the TOAFK is well known, and inspired a Disney film, I don’t believe it gets enough readership. Yet, in my opinion, it is almost to Harry Potter, what Longfellow is to Dr. Seuss.
- The Worm Ourobos by Eric Eddison. A riotous adventure story. The first 30 pages or so, until the Earthman gets to Mercury seemingly in a dream, should be browsed through and forgotten, just as the author then does. Eddison was a brilliant writer, and though the story is not mythologically based, it is so beautifully written, almost poetic prose, and so riveting a story, it is an exception to my general rule.
- The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs is an adult, but very light (and short) fantasy. It's hard to find and you may need to get it used. Very well done though, even if I would have preferred a different ending. When I lend it out I rarely get it back.
- Silverthorn, by John Myers Myers. This is one of my favorite historians (Western) and fiction writers who has somehow escaped great public notice. Silverthorn is a tour de force about a man who finds himself in the waters off of an island after a shipwreck and then in one historical or literary adventure after another. Again, I would have preferred a different ending, but it is so much fun guessing as to who the historical/literary figures are, that it will keep you rolling along. There are a number of websites that have made a project about figuring this out for you, because you will not know them all. You can just read it as a fun story though even if you have no literary pretensions.
- The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart. Another King Arthur saga, it is totally different than White's books and you can read both with great pleasure. I have found I can read nothing else she wrote, although she is somewhat celebrated. But these books were sublime.
- Many works by William Haggard Rider, but if just one, then, The People of The Mist. Even before Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan, Rider specialized at taking English explorers and having them come upon adventure in lost African cities. If not The People of the Mist, then either She or King Solomon's Mines.
- Just about any of Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories or books or those of his puritan scourge, Soloman Kane (Howard is an author who I can credit this blog’s self appointed critic-in-chief, Bear, with introducing me to when we were boys). The Schwarzenegger movies actually captured the spirit quite well, but Conan is fun and easy reading if you like the genre at all.
However, although he was working in a genre with predecessors, there can be no doubt that Tolkien’s influence has been greater than anyone else’s on fantasy or sword and sorcery writers. I can only think of one fantasy writer who may have close to a claim to having had similar influence, and that would be the short lived Robert Howard, above mentioned, who had legions of followers. Still, when I think back on the fantasy novels I’ve seen on shelves for the past 30 years, there are far more who have followed or credit Tolkien than Howard (who, like Tolkien, actually created his own pseudo world history, his called the Hyperborian Age, loosely based on the ancient Europe, as was Middle Earth).
Critical reputation – One problem Tolkien faces, of course, is that some people and critics can not see past fantasy and consider it a serious work of art. For some reason, painters can choose mythology or fantasy as their subject and no one has a problem with it. In fact, many of the greatest works of art have fantastic, legendary or mythological characters as their subject, but authors are not taken seriously if they indulge in it, at least not in modern times. Before Tolkien was famous, he was well known as a scholar in his own field. His 1936 essay/speech on Beowulf is still THE essay on that subject. He wrote therein as follows:
“Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm. More than one poem in recent years (since Beowulf escaped somewhat from the dominion of the students of origins to the students of poetry) has been inspired by the dragon of Beowulf , but none that I know of by Ingeld son of Froda.”
I’m not a stuffy Oxford don, so, I can speak more frankly. Those who believe that great literature cannot be centered around fantasy figures are missing life’s great adventures. Fantasy is inspirational, whereas some of the more mundane characters of literature, however much great literary creations, just aren't. By the way, notice his reference to Froda. Sound familiar?
The dragon of The Hobbit is, of course, much inspired by Beowulf too. Just this decade has been found Tolkien’s own translation of Beowulf, complete with line by line notes, that I believe will be a great publishing success some day. Tolkien himself wrote “Beowulf is among my most valued sources.”
As many English professors don’t get fantasy, they don’t take LOTR seriously. But there are many, a growing number, who do and Tolkien scholarship has long been a serious endeavor for those who are not too smug or pretentious to read it. Scholarly titles are added each year. I’ve stopped trying to keep up because it would be taking up an entire new area of study.
Language – This is perhaps the essence of Tolkien’s work. At least, his work was for him a vehicle for his invented languages, languages based on his knowledge of Old English, Ancient Norse, Latin, etc. He was a world class philogist or scholar of ancient texts. He was also benignly obsessed with his love of languages. Tolkien once wrote to his son, who had sent him some interesting historical tidbit, that he just couldn’t be that interested in history if the historical fact did not include something of linguistic merit. I too often find that knowing what words means, or what place names mean, are the most interesting facets of history for me, although, unlike Tolkien, I find plenty of delight in history without it.
It is often said that Tolkien created several languages for LOTR, including two elvish, one dwarvish, the black speech of Mordor and the Common tongue spoken by seemingly all. This is a gross exaggeration in my opinion. He did create many words, alphabets, pronunciation guides and even grammar for some make believe languages which are to some degree based on his own prolific knowledge of actual ancient languages, and which are, in some cases, quite beautiful. But, there is no actual lengthy work or even a real dictionary in any particular language. Perhaps, some enterprising artist will write one some day with the permission of the estate or when the copyright expires. Tolkien's books though, were about imaginary languages.
I hope I’m dead when new works of fiction based on Tolkien’s classic come out after the copyright expires, because it will hurt me to the core to see his great work raped and pillaged, even by generally good writers. If they are not as versed as he in the old languages, and have not mastered his archaic tone, plus, are brilliant writers themselves, they should not try. That whittles it down to pretty much nobody, but everyone from third graders to schlock adventure writers will jump in for sure - there's money to be made. Recently, Christopher Tolkien has released two works, one based on an uncompleted work of his father’s – The Children of Hurin, a tale which took place long before those of the Hobbit and LOTR, and based on The Silmarillion and unpublished works by his father. Just released is The Tale of Sigurd and Gudrun, a retelling of one of the great Northern Myths. I wonder how much is the father and how much of it is the son, although he is very careful to delineate in my experience, and I am not sure I can bear to read it. While Christopher is a gifted historian of his father, I am not sure critics should become co-authors and I might have preferred to read Tolkien’s unfinished, imperfect work. I should mention that Christopher is no kid – he’s 85 years old, a former Oxford scholar himself, and is suing New Line Cinema on behalf of the estate for 80 million pounds.
Nevertheless, Tolkien’s language play is a study in itself. The languages of Middle Earth are derived from Tolkien’s knowledge of Norse mythology and languages. Gandalf means “Magic” (or wand/staff) Elf.” His name, and the names of all the dwarves from The Hobbit come straight from a list in the Elder Edda. Incidentally in an earlier draft, the head dwarf of The Hobbit was Gandalf. Many of the riders of Rohan began their names with Eo-, and ancient English word (Eoh-) for a warhorse. Eowyn, for example, is an old English combination which could mean lover or joy of (war)horses. For LOTR fans, note that originally Tolkien thought it was she Aragon would love and possible marry, not Arwen. Eowyn’s brother, Eomer’s name comes straight out of Beowulf, as does Frodo (Froda), although he was originally written in as Bingo by Tolkien.
I am no master of Old English, but Orc is an Old English word for demon and is from Beowulf, Ent for Giant, Mordor from murder, Theoden a chief or leader, Saruman means man of skill or cunning. Edoras (the name for Theoden’s court) is from sheltering building and his golden hall, Meduseld, is also taken directly from Beowulf, and means ‘mead-hall’. Beorn means either warrior or, obviously, Bear. Hobbit was only recently found in an old and long list of names for little people, although Tolkien always said he invented it. No one thinks a man who delighted in taking his names straight from ancient literature as homage and an act of love would deny that particular one, particularly as it kept his books from initially being published in Germany, but he probably saw it and forgot. The list is endless and has been very well researched at this point. It would have been nice if the creator left us a full list, but such has not been reported.
Religion – Tolkien was a religious Catholic. The beginning of the universe and Middle Earth in The Silmarillion is a rewriting of Genesis. Tolkien’s Iluvatar or Eru is simply God, the Valar and Maia, his angels, cherubim, etc. Lin Carter, who I referred to above as one of the best authors about Tolkien’s great works, complained that there was not any religion among Tolkien’s people. I think he missed the point. Gandalf, Frodo and friends were the religion and the first three ages were the mythology – what existed in the world before the magic went out of it and the elves and magic returned to the West. We have more evidence than my opinion. Gandalf, Tolkien wrote, was an incarnate angel. Frodo, who almost makes the ultimate sacrifice, and finally goes into the West, is clearly a Christ figure. As Stephen Greydanus points out in an excellent essay, Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s Film Trilogy, each of Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn undergoes a Christ-like “death” and “rebirth.” Tolkien called his own works not only religious, but "Catholic"; and, he also said he owed much of Galadriel’s character to Mother Mary.
Mythology – This is inseparable from the language. I have already pointed out how Tolkien took names from the Elder Edda. Gandalf is the most obvious mythological character, being not only an incarnate angel, but also made in the “Odinic wanderer” archetype (says Tolkien). Of course, he also said that he was based on a painting of the spirit of England – but he can be derived from all these things and come out whole. If you are unfamiliar with Odin, the father of the Norse Gods, he was wisest, although unlike the Greek Zeus, not strongest, sacrificed much, invented magic, cared about humans, wore a hat and wandered through the world of men as an old man with a staff. Hard to miss the connection. The dwarves, the elves, the dragon, Middle Earth itself, Mirkwood, and many other features of LOTR and The Hobbit are all based on beings or creations from Northern mythology (although dragons are certainly a worldwide phenomena). However, all is not. There is a mixture with Christianity as I’ve said earlier. Sauron, and his former master, Melkor, are versions of Lucifer.
Writing style – LOTR in particular is filled with great phrases in dialogue, poetry, songs, description and narration. Tolkien meant it to be serious sounding, although it has its comic moments, and for adults. It was deliberately written in an archaic fashion. Neither Hemingway nor other modern writers could make a dent in Tolkien’s classicism.
Yet, Tolkien was a great writer, and if his genre required certain archetypes, he was a great writer around them. LOTR is a magical web woven with words, if archaic in tone. Tolkien, who worked on The Oxford English Dictionary, edited a Middle English Dictionary, was the translator of a number of works, including, famously, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and was a master of so many languages, was ideally suited for his task. Perhaps he was the only one so suited. There are too many wonderful lines and images to even begin summoning them here with any hope of comprehensive representation, so I will satisfy myself with these few, starting with two conversations between Frodo and Gandalf:
‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
‘Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’
Even better -
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
More poetic are the lines burned on the inside of the great ring -
'Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for the Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.'
And this brief poem describing one of the stories' protaganists –
'All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost,
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.'
In LOTR, Bilbo wrote that last poem for his friend, Aragorn (who in an earlier version was also a hobbit), but, Tolkien could go back to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice - “All that glisters is not gold.” But, it was not original to Shakespeare either and variations were at least as old as the 15th century. Go to http://everything2.com/title/All%2520that%2520glitters%2520is%2520not%2520gold for an historical commentary on this phrase.
Tragic theme – LOTR is tragedy, not comedy. Deep down, although the heroes are triumphant, it is about loss - the loss of the world Tolkien had known in his youth, the triumph of the combustion engine over fire, of cars and trains over horses, roads over paths. When Gandalf and the elves return to the West over the sea, it is the end of the age of folk magic and simple wisdom and the beginning of the age of man, science and technology. Perhaps, indeed, Saruman triumphs after all. For Tolkien it was a great loss. I believe he would have been thrilled with the music from the movies that did a great job of capturing his work on film, but particularly with the song “Into the West” played over the credits, written by composer, Howard Shore and co-written and hauntingly sung by Annie Lennox. I hope to have it played at my funeral (seriously).
The feeling of loss is well in keeping with the Norse tradition and brings us back to the last two sentences of the quote from Edith Hamilton we started with: “All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism.”
The Hobbit was already out a few years before Hamilton wrote those words, but either she didn’t read it, or it wasn’t serious enough, being a children’s story, to let her understand who Tolkien was and what he was doing. I have no idea if she ever read LOTR, which came out in the 1950s long before she died. But Tolkien and Hamilton were on the same page and I think he fulfilled her prophecy.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
10. Juan Carlos of Spain. Here in America we praise Washington for not becoming a king in America. Although he was the most popular figure in America, I disagree with the consensus that the evidence that the kingship could have really been his in a country made up of 13 sovereign states (the way they saw it at the time). In my humble opinion, his revolutionary peers were proud he did not seek to be king, but would have rebelled had he tried. But Juan Carlos of Spain was actually King in Spain, and had monarchial powers, had we wanted to keep them. Juan Carlos’ grandfather, Alphonse XIII, was the last King of Spain when he was deposed in 1931, soon before the outset of the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco took over at the end of the war and become dictator and then, nominally restoring the monarchy, all powerful regent until he died in 1975. He had named his successor, Juan Carlos, skipping a generation to appoint the member of the royal family who most supported him, and it was expected that JC would continue in the same authoritarian manner as he had. Apparently, though, he had been secretly conferring with democrats unbeknownst to Franco and had no such intention. He stunned the world by almost immediately instituting democratic reforms. Although JC is still technically Spain’s King (not to mention the historical title of King of Jerusalem), just a few years after he took over, the conversion to parliamentary democracy came, and JC was made titular King. This self abrogation of power is itself enough to make the list. But JC’s life has three other interesting features. Like much of European royalty today, he is descended from a who’s who of historical personages, including Queen Victoria, King Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 2000 he was almost assassinated by the same nut who almost killed Pope John Paul II a few years earlier. Why was that guy out of jail? The last interesting fact is not so pleasant. When he was 18 years old, he accidentally shot his younger brother dead. There were different stories as to how it happened, but nevertheless, although no one suspects murder, he killed his brother and that has to stick with you to the end of your days. Okay, I ruined the mood, didn’t I? Let’s move on.
9. Strange that a history crazed person such as myself would have two choices alive during my own life time on the list, but Idi Amin makes it too. Amin was dictator of Uganda throughout the 1970s after taking power in a coup -- as murderous as a snake and as crazy as a bedbug. Other than that, he was quite an impressive guy. Undoubtedly my favorite Idi Aminism is his declaring himself the King of Scotland and America as well as Conqueror of the British Empire. That’s just Daffy Duck crazy. He was quite large and before he became dictator was Uganda’s heavyweight champion. Never got his shot against Ali or Frazier, of course, and would have gotten his clock cleaned if he did, but, presuming it wasn't fixed, that’s not bad. The coup wasn’t his first power grab. In the late 60s he helped the prime minister oust the king and became commander of the armed forces. Perhaps he would have stayed that if the prime minister didn’t plot against him. Amin struck first. Of course, he promised to institute democratic process. What didn’t Amin do? He was responsible for the murder of perhaps hundreds of thousands of citizens, expelled Asians, bonded with Libya’s Gadaffi, who just missed this list, and publicly threatened Kenya and Israel. Kenya brought troops to the border, sending Amin scurrying for cover. When Uganda allowed a hijacked plane to land there, and Israelis remained the only hostages, it ended up the subject of the legendary Entebbe raid. Israel’s well planned attack left only one of their own soldier’s dead and only a few hostages, while dozens of Ugandan soldiers and all the hijackers met their fate. Things started to unravel for Amin. He became crazier and crazier. In 1978 he actually invaded another neighbor, Tanzania, which fought back and invaded Uganda. Amin fled, and though he tried to take over again years later, he died an exile in 2003.
8. Jump back a few thousand years to this Egyptian King, Psammetichus. I learned about this Pharaoh from one of my favorite history books – the first, as far as we know anyway, Herodotus’s Histories. Unlike some of the other characters in Herodotus, Psammetichus is not legendary, but was a ruler of Egypt for 54 years. According to Herodotus (but not more modern historians) he was one of twelve rulers of Egypt, and accidentally fulfilled a prophecy for uniting the empire by drinking from his bronze helmet the priest serving the twelve forgot to bring enough glasses. The other kings were shaken by this, but kindly decided not to kill him, and just banished him. He consulted an oracle, who told him that he would rule when he became allied with bronze men from the sea. Sure enough, Greeks showed up from the sea decked out in bronze and he went to meet them. This is all an approximation of the truth and Herodotus was not far off. Psammetichus did unite Egypt in the 7th century B.C. and freed them from the yoke of the Assyrians. He did bring Greeks into the empire, but possibly not in the way Herodotus stated, with the Greek warriors helped him take over. But my favorite Psammetichus stories are also from Herodotus and concern two experiments he did. The less interesting of them involved an experiment to discover the depth of the Nile by lowering a rope into it. The rope was reportedly thousands of fathoms long, but never reached the bottom. Herodotus learned much later that unbeknownst to Psammetichus, powerful underwater currents would prevent any rope from reaching the bottom. Of course, everything Herodotus told us about the Nile was pretty much wrong, and, although he was honest in saying when he thought the stories he heard were not true, he missed the boat on this one. The better story is his experiment to discover which were the first people on earth. He did this in a less than logical way (not that it really happened). He took two babies and had them raised by women whose tongues were cut out (one version of the story anyway). Whichever was the first word uttered would (naturally) prove which was the first language and the first people. The first word that came out was “Bekos,” a Phrygian word meaning bread. After that, the Egyptians believed the Phrygians to have preceded them in time on Earth. We have so much knowledge to thank Herodotus for, and these facts aren't among them. However, they did make, Psammetichus one of my favorite characters.
7. Peter Alexeyevich Romanov is the subject of a number of books, but Robert K. Massie’s Peter the Great is my all time favorite biography providing one of the most interesting and readable histories of Russia. Peter, raised by the Czar, was groomed from the beginning. When his father died, his forceful mother took over as Regent until Peter came of age and he still had to share with a brother, who was not healthy and soon died. When he did take over, he put his stamp on Russia for ever. But, the six foot eight inch Peter interested me for reasons other than his military success (eventually) and rule. He was a strange Czar who traveled for a year and a half incognito to try and raise European help against the Ottomans (unsuccessfully) and while there learned to build ships and cities, rushed home to put down one of many insurrections, had over a thousand of the rebels tortured and killed, gave Russia a Navy, forced his court to shave their beards and dress in a western style, was fascinated by and collected giants, including a huge French personal servant nicknamed Bourgeous, as well as dwarves, greatly expanded Russia’s territory to its staggering size, played huge mock battles with his toy navy, forced his wife to become a nun as well as his traitorous half sister, had his disloyal eldest son imprisoned and tortured to death, prevented Russians from becoming monks before they turned 50, had glorious St. Petersburg built and finally died at age 52 of bladder problems. His life spanned the 17th and 18th century, was filled with many successes and many personal disasters, and was not just “Great,” but fascinating.
6. As remarkable as Peter was, Attila the Hun, the leader of the Hun horde that ravaged Europe in the fifth century A.D. makes him look tepid in comparison. Known as the Scourge of God, there are many rumors and legends about the great leader, but much of it is just speculation. The Huns left no texts and their language is unknown. A contemporary witness described Attila as small, broad man, large headed man with small eyes, a thin graying beard, flat nose and tanned skin. At least that was the report from a historian a couple of centuries later who had the report. The Hun’s originations are unknown and may have been a conglomerate of Asiatic tribes, including Turks, Goths and Alans, etc. Attila ruled on horseback, but that was the norm for the Huns, a nomadic horseback tribe that used the sword as well as the powerful composite bow. Attila’s name is Gothic German for Little Father, which sounds more like an appellation than a real name. He ruled from 434 through 453, the first half with his brother, whom he killed (probably). He and his men devastated the towns they plundered. They were rarely defeated in battle but finally defeated in modern day France by a collection of Gauls, Goths and Romans, but escaped intact to ravage Italy. Fortunately for Rome, Attila died the next year, probably only 47 years old. He appears to have choked to death on his own blood during a party and the cause of this is subject to more speculation. At one point, the Roman Emperor’s sister, Honoria, seeking to evade marriage to a Roman Senator, sent Attila her engagement ring, either proposing marriage to Attila or merely asking for his aid. He determined it was a proposal and tried to claim her. He never attacked either Rome or Constantinople, although he threatened them, and decimated large parts of Europe while doing so. Like many famous warrior-rulers of old, he had a famous sword, allegedly found by a shepherd boy, known as the Sword of God, or, Sword of the War God. It came to represent him. Though probably lost to history, it has been “found” more than once.
5. Writing about Adolf Hitler is always tricky. There are many people still alive who suffered from his outrages which involved much of the world, and Jews are, not surprisingly, especially sensitive about him. The loathing has led to a strange sort of prism through which Hitler must be politically viewd, and any suggestion that there was anything interesting, or not outright horrifying about him, is immediately rejected, and, the writer pilloried as a Hitler-lover or apologist. Even an open discussion of how many people died in the holocaust is cause for anger and accusations. However bad Hitler was, he was a force bar none in the world, rallying his country after their disastrous defeat in WWI, charming, bullying and terrorizing almost all of Europe in the run up to the war. He was seemingly invincible in his judgments early on, showed us the fallacy of appeasement at Munich, took the surrounding countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot by threats, tricks and intimidation, set off WWII by invading Poland, dominated and pummeled England, France and Russia for a while with little real assistance except from a distant Japan distracting America in the Pacific, before the wealth and power of America and Russia, together with the help of its other allies determined his and his country’s fate. His startling blue eyes, magnetic charisma, megalomaniacal personality, political superiority, animalistic violence, strange relationships with his mistress (and at the end, wife), Eva Braun, and his own niece, Geli, who was found dead in his apartment killed (by herself?) with his gun, bizarre superstitions, loyalty to many of those he favored, his understanding of mechanical warfare ahead of his peers, devotion to art and architecture, the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust, his driving of new technology and weaponry, and belief in his own powers were the sole wellspring of WWII, the greatest and most cataclysmic event in modern history, which has left its stamp on Western Civilization for over 60 years so far, and, likely well into the future. In destroying him, he made Churchill, Roosevelt and even the equally heinous Stalin, great. He was easy to hate and impossible to deny. The world's fascination with him has never dimmed.
4. Sargon of Akkad – It is amazing how much they know about Sargon, who some identify with the biblical figure, Nimrod, legendary founder of many great cities in Mesopotamia. However, as all of our information comes from texts some thousands of years old, much is legend mixed with fact, and the two cannot be unraveled. Sargon makes the list because he is arguably (hard to say) the first founder of a great empire well over four thousand years ago. He may also be the founder of Akkad, which sounds not so impressive unless you recognize how dominant the Akkadian empire was politically and linguistically for well over a millenium. About fifteen hundred years after Sargon's death, although still only the 8th century, B.C., a text, purportedly his autobiography, speaks of his birth in a way that might sound familiar – he was given birth to by a priestess from an unknown father, sealed in a basket of rushes and set adrift, to be rescued by a commoner. Along came a goddess who gave him her love and poof – he’s king. If it sounds vaguely like Moses, there are others who share this probably mythological Near and Middle Eastern beginning. Sargon was undoubtedly a great conqueror and established his rule over all of Mesopotamia (now, basically Iraq), parts of what is now Iran, the Northern parts of Arabia and then across the fertile crescent across Syria and into Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast. These were bitter, brutal times, when lives were ended in an instance, connected leashes lashed to the lips of slaves and horrendous slaughter commonplace. Yet Sargon managed to win battle after battle, expanding his city-state into an empire. He did not have the greatest empire by far, but first means something. He died in the 23rd century B.C., at least a thousand years before the Trojan War’s historical date and the birth of Abraham. He was, if nothing else, an early and major part of forces that would shape the world we know, possibly the inspiration for biblical characters and text, and certainly a hero to rulers in his area for many hundred of years. Sargon II, the great Assyrian ruler, took his name some fifteen hundred years later.
3. Who would we be if not for William the Conqueror? He was, in some senses, the founder of the Britain we know today, a mixture of French and Anglo-Saxon culture. His great victory in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings on England’s shore is still one of the most famous dates in history. Born around 1028 A.D., he was first known as William the Bastard, being the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, but was named heir all the same when still just a boy. He had to fight to keep his title and would have certainly lost it to a host of usurpers if not for the support of Henry I of France, who then turned against him and tried to take Normandy from him too (although it was a French dependency). William gained in power and popularity. 1066 was a year that saw England on the defensive and in which it had four kings. Edward the Confessor, a mild man by the standards of the time was first but died in January of that year. Harold Godwinson was crowned King. William claimed that Edward had promised him the title during William’s visit to London, and that Harold, who he had rescued, fought with side by side and eventually knighted, promised him his allegiance (although perhaps by trickery). The Pope supported William, which quite important at the time. Harold first had to fight off his own brother who was allied with the Danish, a people who had controlled parts of Britain for a couple of hundred years (the Danelaw), and then rush to the Southern coast to fight William. But, it was too late. William had time to build forts and pick his spot for the fight. Although the forces were roughly equal in size, William had calvary, infantry and archers, while Harold was mostly limited to infantry. At first, Harold seemed to hold his own, but the effect of the arrows and the power of the horseback soldiers eventually wore his forces away, and after a day of battle, Harold and his other brothers fell. Still, England would not surrender and a very young Edgar Aetheling was named king. Although most folks think Hastings ended the Conqueror's bid, Aetheling did not surrender for about 8 years, and William had to fight to win. Once conquering though, he returned to Normandy and spent most of his life in France or having other adventures, battling his own family and neighbors as was the way of the time. He died during battle after a fall from a horse in 1078. Long before he died, however, his administration had changed Britain forever, Normandizing the language, at least of the ruling class, and transferring most of the land to his Norman kinsmen and followers. It was the last time England was successfully invaded. Had he failed, he would not be looked upon as a heroic figure today, but as another wannabe English conqueror, along with Napoleon and Hitler. But, no doubt, Britain would have been a more Germanic country and language, and the veils of history do not let us get a peak at what effect that would have had in the twentieth century.
2. Even I’m not sure why I like Sulla the Happy. He was as ambitious and awful as a Roman tyrant could be, but there’s something about him that was – happy? Perhaps it is just because he is so less famous than Caesar, who I never could stand. He came up under the consul Marius, a wealthy and powerful man during a time when Italy, completely under the tyrannical sway of Rome, was in constant upheaval – the rich and the poor, the aristocracy and the democrats were at constant odds. In 88 B.C., with Marius retired, Lucius Cornelius Sulla was made one of the consuls in order to battle a powerful opponent, Mithridates of Greece. One of Sulla’s adversaries managed to get the Assembly to bring back Marius in his stead. Sulla, originally a poorer member of the aristocracy, fled to the army, and with them at his back attacked Rome. Now Marius fled, and the man behind it, Sulpicius Rufus, betrayed by his slave, had his head fixed on a pole. Sulla treated the slave who helped him no better – he freed him to reward his services and then had him executed because he betrayed a Roman master. Sulla, now proconsul, went away to his war and Marius came back with an army. A ferocious melee occured – class warfare on a brutal, bloody scale. Sulla’s followers were slaughtered, among many others, and all of his assets seized. Marius was elected consul again, but died. Sulla made peace with Mithridates, and came back with fabulous riches, sending his adversaries fleeing, including a young Julius Caesar. He fought another war against the democrats and a terrible slaughter ensued. Sulla was made dictator and a reign of terror ensued against his enemies that makes the French Revolution look like a morality play. But, he ruled only two years as dictator, and after revolutionizing the laws so as to guarantee an aristocracy or monarchy (he hoped) forever, he retired. His enemies were all dead, and he could live without any fear. He had had a remarkable life in which he always seemed to win – his soldiers loved him, he had five wives and many mistresses, he was exceedingly well educated, filled his life with luxuries and riches, wrote his memoirs. He did not get to enjoy his retirement, but died the next year from a horrid ulcer too awful to describe in these genteel pages, and died hemorrhaging. I've read a few different versions of the epitaph he wrote for himself, and will not track down the truest version, but, according to Will Durant, who has my trust, he wrote “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” Few dictators have ruled who can say that honestly.
1. Charles XII of Sweden. I’ve written of this hero before in some depth here (June 28, 2008) and will be much briefer here. He was the ultimate swashbuckler – a King who led in battle, was almost astonishingly brave, took on more than he could chew, and eventually choked on it. But, what a fabulous ride. Riding out of his own country, he camped with his men, was their hero and fought beside them. He lived during the same era as Peter the Great. Both Voltaire and Franklin adjudged Charles the greater. Yet, if he was superior in valor and martial skills, Peter’s artillery and the size of Russia were more important and he won the Battle of Poltava, making his own legend forever. Although XII, who fled to the Ottomans, successfully gathered their aid, they temporarily defeated his nemesis, Peter barely escaped with his life and was able to bribe the Ottomans, saving his own neck. This infuriated XII, but there was nothing he could do about it. He finally made his way across Europe in a secret ride home with a few men and returned at last almost a beaten man to his own Sweden. Although the Great Northern War was forced upon him, he relied too much on his own personal greatness, usually a mistake in the end. Sweden was finally attacked within its own borders and forced to surrender much of its territory. He fought in over a hundred battles and almost always won. Had his initial charge at Poltava been successful, as it at first seemed it would, or the Ottomans not let Peter slip through their fingers later on, perhaps we never would have heard of Peter the Great and more would know of this great warrior-king. I will not attempt to review in this paragraph all the acts of personal heroism that make Charles so riveting, but refer you to my earlier post. At the close of that article I wrote – “As to who was greater, XII or Peter, I will offer only this suggestion. XII was more magnificent, but Peter was greater, as his achievements were many and lasting". Perhaps true, but when concentrating on my fascination with them, I can’t help elevating XII over Peter for this one time, at least, and give him the victory he probably deserved.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .