Quote for Thought: The Things That Mean Something

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There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

W. Somerset Maugham

 

I don’t consider myself a writer, but I do like to write. When I was young and naive, I used to tell myself that I would write about things that mean something. The question that followed this decision was, of course: What are the things that mean something? Different people search for different answers. Everything can mean something. The question I had asked myself had no answer.

After that, I started to think about things I find interesting and thought-provoking. There was only one conclusion that I could come up with – big issues are hard to write about. I am not able to answer the humanity’s hardest questions. I can’t even answer the easier ones. So, even if I defined one of the things-that-mean-something, how would I approach it?

I decided then that it is not up to the writer to answer questions. Sometimes, their job is only to ask them, and offer in return their own experiences and views. To offer one opinion – your own – as the ultimate truth would be completely wrong. Yes, I know there’s didactic literature out there, but I’ve never been fond of it. It becomes important only when the reader looks at it critically. We should always ask ourselves questions. Why does it have to be this way? Why does the author think this is the truth? Is my experience telling me something else? Some of the didactic literature gives wrong advices, and we should be able to question it. However, we should also think about someone else’s arguments and maybe they would make us change our mind. It’s fine to do that, I must stress. You are not “fake” if you change, it’s called personal growth.

Anyway, the way I see literature now is quite changed. What I learned in college was that it’s important to focus on your own ideas, and not the author’s. You can never know for sure what the author wanted to say, unless s/he said it in an article or an interview. The literature I like the most is not the literature that gives answers to some life questions in a moralizing way. The literature I like tries to present the world as it is, complex and ambiguous. Sometimes there are no answers, but you should still think about all that surrounds you. Even if it’s “just” a horror book, but it speaks to you in an indescribable way, it is for you a book about the things that mean something. And isn’t finding meaning in even the smallest things one of the greatest gifts of all?

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The Classics Book Tag

I first saw this tag on booktube, but it’s been around on blogs, too, so I thought I might do it. The original tag can be found here. Anyway, I thought it would be fun, so even though no one tagged me I decided to do it so that you can get to know me better and hopefully some discussion may arise. Feel free to comment! 🙂

1. An overhyped classic you really didn’t like:

Don Quixote, I don’t even have to think about it! I really, really, really don’t like it. And it is said to be the best novel ever written! The novel is picaresque, and it’s an ironic portrayal of chivalric romances, so I should have liked, but no. I do get that it’s metaphoric and all that, but I found it too repetitive, the same things being said time and time again but in a different way, and I didn’t care for it at all. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, I don’t know…

2. Favourite time period to read about:

I can’t really say that I have a favourite time period to read about. I really like reading about the Middle Ages, and I have recently read The Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio, which was written in the fourteenth century, and am currently reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legends. I also like to read about the Celts, but I haven’t read a lot about them so I hope someone can recommend something to me. I would certainly suggest reading Ellen Evert Hopman’s books, Priestess of the ForestThe Druid’s Isle, and Priestess of The Fire Temple because they are interesting but also very informative.

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I also like the beginning of the 19th century (Mary Shelley, Bronte sisters etc.) and modern books which take place in the Victorian era.

3. Favourite fairy tale:

Probably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, though it makes me so sad… I have a soft spot for animals.

4. What is the most embarrassing classic you haven’t read yet:

I wish I’ve read more Dickens, I’ve only read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations so far. I must admit I’m not really drawn to Dickens’ novels… But I’m most embarrassed that I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 because I’m sure I would love it. The thing is, I grew up with different classics here in Croatia, a lot of Russian and French literature, so I haven’t read as many American and English classics as people form English-speaking countries have. I studied English in college though, so I caught up with a lot of them, but I feel that the modern classics weren’t mentioned a lot, and I’m trying to read them as I feel I really should, considering my education. Oh, and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, that’s something I definitely should’ve read by now!

5. Top 5 classics you would like to read soon:

Well, Fahrenheit 451 and Lolita for sure, The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens because I think I might enjoy this one, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut because I liked the other two of his books that I’ve read, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates because I’ve heard great things about it.

6. Favourite modern book/series based on a classic:

I’m not really sure I know one, so I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Terry Pratchett’s books are quite intertextual, so Wyrd Sisters has a lot of references to Shakespeare, while Witches Abroad references fairy tales.

7. Favourite movie version/tv-series based on a classic:

BBC series are always good, but everybody knows that. I liked the first season of Penny Dreadful, a series that features all the most famous horror characters – characters from Dracula, Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein and his Creature etc. But the second season is not that interesting I have to say…

And I would like to add something, as the question about fairy tales reminded me of Disney, I have to say that I love Tangled and The Emperor’s New Groove! Oh, The Emperor’s New Groove, only watching the trailer makes me feel so happy! 🙂

8. Worst classic to movie adaptation:

There was never a good Frankenstein… I liked how the creature was portrayed in Penny Dreadful, though.

9. Favourite editions you’d like to collect more classics from:

I have to say that I like my simple black Penguin Classics, white Penguin Modern Classics and Oxford Classics. All of these are beautiful in their simplicity, and I actually prefer paperbacks because I find them more practical. And I do like how these editions look an the shelves. In an ideal world, I would collect the Barns and Noble classics which are just too pretty, though quite huge and I guess hard to read from… But I would just look at them and enjoy. XD

10. An underhyped classic you would recommend to everyone:

I’m not sure if it’s underhyped, but I don’t see a lot of people talking about it – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I really loved this novel. I would also recommend The Decameron, which I’ve already mentioned, especially if you’re interested in the middle ages and the Italian Renaissance. It’s basically a collection of short stories sou you can’t always pick and chose a few if you don’t want to read it whole.the age of innocence

EDIT: How could I forget The Song of the Nibelungs! Shame on me, because it’s great – a medieval German saga about the hero Siegfried in which Siegfried is not really the main character… Lovely 🙂

Does anyone want to do this tag? Feel free to do it! 🙂

Review: “The Sword in the Stone” and Pacifism

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“The Sword in the Stone” is the first book of T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, a retelling of Arthurian legends. As someone who is really fond of these kind of legends, I just had to pick it up. Finally.

First, I want to say something about the style. Some aspects of the story are explained and described in terms which did not exist in the Middle Ages – for example, the Badger speaks about his doctoral dissertation, which I found amusing. And really, mostly this is quite humorous, and it worked great. Sometimes, though, I wanted to be dragged into the world of king Arthur and this prevented me a little bit. However, I did find some references quite interesting as they referred to our time in a critical way, which gives another aspect to the novel. I also liked some references to the medieval tradition, for example Robin Hood appears in the novel. I especially liked how maid Marion was portrayed.

Now, let’s talk about the story. “The Sword in the Stone” part follows young Arthur’s childhood and education, the times when he was still called Wart. Wart is raised by Sir Ector and lives in the shadow of his son, Kay. Since Kay is Sir Ector’s real son, he’s supposed to become a knight, and Wart his squire. Wart wishes he could be a knight, but accepts his destiny. However, the boys’ tutor Merlyn pays much more attention to Wart.

Throughout the book, Merlyn gives Wart some life lessons and transforms him into different animals. By learning about the ways in which the animals live, Wart learns about the world in general. And here comes the part that I found most enjoyable. It’s easy for a book about knight and chivalry to portray fights and war as something interesting and almost good. However, T.H. White turns this around. For example, this is how a goose reacted when Wart asked her if geese have wars against other geese.

“What a horrible mind you must have! You have no right to say such things! And of course there are sentries.There are jer-falcons and the peregrines, aren’t there:the foxes and the ermines and the humans with their nets? These are natural enemies. But what creature would be so low as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” …

“I like fighting,” said the Wart. “It is knightly.”

“Because you’re a baby.”

Arthur is quite naive in the beginning. He looks up to the knights, who act funny and whose tournaments look like jokes – which is also a nice comment on violence. He also looks up to Kay, the boy he grew up with, even though Kay is vain and not kind to him. The author stresses this himself, and makes sure that the reader is aware of Wart’s naivety:

The Wart continued to be stupid, fond of Kay, and interested in birds.

Several years later, Wart has a conversation about fighting with the Badger, in which the Badger also says how humans wage war against each other, and how they are feared by all animals. Wart says that he would like to be a knight, go to war and show his courage. He also says that the ants fight against each other. And in the end, the Badger then puts everything in the right perspective:

“Which did you like best,” he asked, “the ants or the wild geese?”

The chapter ends here, but to the reader it’s obvious that Wart didn’t really like the ants, and that he enjoyed his time with the geese.

Silly Wart will become the great king Arthur, which is shown in the end, when he manages to draw the sward from the stone. To do this, he had to use all the knowledge he gained from Merlyn and the animals. II think this shows that he has the ability to grow and become wise. In the beginning of the second book (I’ve read only three chapters so far) Wart is still not completely changed, but Merlyn still teaches him the same values.

“(…) What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armour, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like. The only risk you run is of getting a few bruises if you happen to come across another knight. (…) All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day’s work to hurt each other, an the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that’s the motto.

I really like Merlyn’s words and criticism, and it will be interesting to see how Arthur’s character will develop.

I will post another review once I finish the entire book. I’m really excited to see how it progresses. 🙂

The Sunflower and the Worm

Image courtesy of Pixomar at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pixomar at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Why do you always hide in the ground?” the Sunflower asked the Worm.

“It is my home”, the Worm replied.

“Such a sad home it is, so dark and cold! I pity you for I spend my days proudly, facing the brilliant Sun.”

“No, it is I who pity you”, grumbled the Worm. “For the Sun blinds you and you can’t see that life isn’t always bright.”

“You envy me”, smiled the Sunflower.

“How could I envy you, when you have nowhere to hide?” asked the worm.

“What would I hide from? The world is so beautiful and full of splendour, so why hide when you can live?”

The Worm did not reply, but crawled into the ground, thinking how stupid the yellow flower was.

And so they lived, one in the sun and the other in the ground, but it was hard to say who truly lived in the light and who was in the dark. The world didn’t care, it just went on. Many sunflowers and worms lived before these two, and many more will live after them, each in their own way – the best way they know.

Quote for Thought: Don’t Forget You’re a Beautiful Swan

It matters nothing if one is born in a duck-yard, if one has only lain in a swan’s egg.

Hans Christian Andersen, “The Ugly Duckling”

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Picture taken by me in Bled, Slovenia.

I like how several Hans Christian Andersen’s tales deal with characters who are different, cast out, or don’t belong in their environment – “The Ugly Duckling”, “Thumbelina”, “The Silver Shilling” to name a few. And in the end, all of those characters find happiness. It is hard to be different or misunderstood, but if you are a beautiful swan inside, it eventually always shows on the outside. Everybody deserves to be who they truly are, and we should all think twice before judging someone. If anyone struggles with similar problems, I hope you these quotes might give you at least a little strength.

“All my troubles were ended, joy came back to me, for I was of good silver, and had the right stamp, and I had no more disagreeables to endure, though a hole had been bored though me, as through a false coin; but that doesn’t matter if one is not really false. One must wait for the end, and one will be righted at last – that’s my belief.” said the Shilling.

Hans Christian Andersed, “The Silver Shilling”

Creatures

I was hungry so I headed towards Barry’s Diner.

The streets were lifeless. Almost nobody goes out at night anymore. People know that some kind of evil roams this town, but nobody listens to them. They are all primitive peasants, after all. I thought of them that way as well, but in this case, they seem to be right.

People of this town never liked me. My parents moved here when I was still a boy, but to them I remained a foreigner. A boy from the big city who doesn’t understand their ways. I’m not sure if I was naturally a loner or if they turned me into one, but I’ve never made real friends. I rarely left my home. I grew my own vegetables and earned some money on translations, something I could do from home. I don’t know why I returned here after college. My father was sick so I came to help my mother, but after that, I could’ve left. I didn’t, and apparently now I was trapped here. There was something about this place that made me feel at home, even though I hated the people that lived here. Now, however, I had to feel sorry for them.

I followed the pale streetlights to the only place that was still open. Old Barry didn’t want to change his ways and he kept his diner working as before. People stared at me as I entered. They didn’t expect me there. Ken the Hermit – that was who I was to them. But this night, they had a more important thing on their minds.

There were only men in the diner; men with no families, who always ate out, men who didn’t really spend time with their families, and several drunkards. As always, Bill Brightley was the loudest one.

“What do you want?” asked Sarah, old Barry’s daughter.

She was never nice to the customers and she never smiled, but everybody still liked her. She surely was the nicest face there, to be honest.

I ordered the first meal I thought of. She nodded and left without saying anything.

“I say it’s a vampire or a werewolf!” proclaimed Bill Brightley.

“You can’t really mean that, Bill”, said someone quietly.

“Well, it’s some kind of a creature that eats people. You saw the bodies, the flesh ripped from the bones!”

“It’s some lunatic”, said the third voice.

“Well, who could it be? I’d say the only suspicious one is the Hermit!” said Bill Brigthely jokingly, making sure I could hear him.

I said nothing, pretending not to hear him.

“Anyway, we have to do something. I say we go out and watch. We might spot something.”

“To Hell, Bill! You can’t be serious!”

“We are the men of this town! We are the ones to protect it!”

The men of the town fell silent. Sarah came with my order.

“Sarah, sweety, don’t you think that we should do something about those murders?” Bill yelled after her.

“What would you do?” responded Sarah in monotone.

“Hunt it down, whatever it is!”

“How would you hunt it down if you don’t know what it is?” Sarah crossed her arms.

“We all know what it is! It’s a monster! Our grandmothers always told stories and you all know them. It happened in the past and it’s happening again!”

“Those are just old stories”, said someone.

“Maybe not”, I said.

When I turned to face them, everybody was looking at me in surprise. They didn’t expect me to take part in their conversation.

“So, what do you think?” asked Bill.

“I’ve also heard those stories you speak of. There was this old lady who told them to me. She thought I had to know them if I wanted to be part of this town. She said there were creatures here, not the vampires and werewolves of the horror stories, but real monsters who hunted and ate people and could turn their victims into one of their own. Even now, some of them hide in the woods, she said, and they can hide for centuries if they wish to. They are not mortal. And when they gather their strength, they will come again.”

Everybody was silent for a moment. They seemed to recollect the similar stories they’ve heard when they were children.

“My grandfather told me his little brother was taken from his bed one night”, said one of the men. “Grandfather saw the creature that took him. It was a young, pretty girl, but she was terrifying in an indescribable way. He was so scared he couldn’t move. The little brother was never found again.”

“In my family, there’s this weird story about my great-grandmother”, said another man. “She had a lover. Every night she would go out into the woods to meet him. My great-grandfather found out and, one night, he followed her. The next morning, he returned, his hair completely white. He never spoke a word again.”

“Yes, I also heard…”

“Stop it!” screamed Bill. “We all know that there are many, many stories about those monsters, but this doesn’t help. If we want to fight this time, we need to know where they are and how to defeat them.”

“Crosses!” said one man.

“Cut its head off!” said another.

Bill didn’t seem satisfied with the answers.

“I think I know where to find them”, I said.

“You do?” Bill’s eyes sparkled with interest.

“The old lady said they hide in the ruins, where the old castle used to be. It’s in the woods, but still not that far from the town. And it has many hidden hallways where they can hide. I don’t know if this it true, however. That’s just what I’ve heard.”

“We should burn it down!” yelled one of the men.

“Well, it’s the only clue we’ve got”; said Bill. “We could go there just before dawn, and try to burn it. The stone is moist and doesn’t burn, but we have enough time to plan how to do it.”

“Maybe it’s completely crazy”, I said. “But least we would be doing something.”

“Why are you helping us?” asked Bill.

“Like it or not, I live here. Of course I want the murders to stop”, I said. I got up from the chair, leaving my food untouched.

Bill looked at me with approval and for the first time I felt like a part of the town. I was a comforting feeling.

***

It was still night when we approached the ruins. The stone walls were covered in ivy. Everybody just stood there, uncertain if this was a good idea after all. A little bit of light found its ways through the branches above us, which meant that the dawn is approaching. We had our flashlights pointed to the ground so as not to wake anything that might be hiding nearby.

“We have to burn it from within, there is no other way. The floors have turned to grass I presume, so it shouldn’t be hard. We just have to check it”, said Bill.

Nobody said anything but we still followed him towards the entrance. There was no door there, only ivy and shrubbery. Bill cut through the bushes, trying to make as less sound as possible. And then, we were inside.

The room was pitch-black so we had to use our flashlights. All we could see were the stone walls which surrounded us mercilessly. Everybody stayed silent. Grown men afraid of the dark. Grown men trembling like prey animals.

Bill then motioned towards a single hallway. We knew we had to go that way, wherever it may lead us. We’ve come this far and we couldn’t give up. It must be dawning outside – there was some solace in that.

We walked, wary of everything around us, listening for every sound. We came to a place where hallway led into another room. We looked inside. It seemed empty, but we couldn’t be sure.

“Two of you must stay there to keep watch. We can’t allow them to attack us from the back or, even worse, to surround us”, whispered Bill.

The two men who stayed behind looked almost relieved. The room seemed empty and safe enough. The rest of us proceeded farther into the darkness until the hallway split in two directions.

One way seemed to lead into a room, but it was hard to tell. The other led only into vast darkness.

“We should first go there”, a man showed in the direction which seemed to have an end.

“I think we should go deeper”, Bill responded. “And this time, I don’t think we should split.”

“We should definitely check this way”, insisted the man in a louder voice that would be advised.

“Fine, you cowards. You stay and someone will go on with me. Once you check the room, come after us. If something attacks us you’ll hear the screams”, said Bill sarcastically. “So, who’s going with me?”

Nobody wanted to.

“I’ll go”, I said finally.

Bill looked at me a bit confused, but he wasn’t able to choose.

“Fine”, he said, and everybody did as we’d agreed.

Two flashlights were not enough. Everything was so silent that I could hear Bill’s heartbeat as he walked in front of me. I could hear my stomach grumbling and was certain he could hear it, too. Only then did I realize how alone we were. “This was a very bad plan, Bill”, I thought.

The hallway led us straight into another room. The space distribution was a bit confusing. I don’t think anybody knew where we actually were.

“We passed no windows this entire time. Why are there no windows?” asked Bill.

It was the obvious question to ask but nobody thought about it, blinded by fear.

“You were lured”, I said.

“Wha…?” Bill turned.

I growled and leapt, sinking my teeth at his throat.

I wasn’t hungry anymore.

Quote for Thought: Who are we?

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What I saw wasn’t a ghost. It was simply – myself. I can never forget how terrified I was that night, and whenever I remember it, this thought always springs to my mind: that the most frightening thing in the world is our own self.

Haruki Murakami, “The Mirror”

(This month’s topic seems to be horror. And I’ve decided to embrace it.)

Do we really fear ourselves? Why would we? Well, people question themselves all the time. Sometimes, we are quick to say: I’d never do that. But then, can we really be sure?

I discussed this with a friend once, and we concluded that you can never be entirely sure of what you are and aren’t capable of. Your personality is created through the process of socialization, upbringing, adapting to the environment. If you were born elsewhere, would you be someone completely different? Probably. Even with the same genes, you would have different life experiences which would shape your identity in another way. Who are we then? It’s hard to say.

But let’s not go that far. Let’s stay in our own skin. Can you say for certain how you would react in an unthinkable situation, how you would react to complete shock? For example, people are said to do almost impossible things when their life is in danger. They suddenly possess survival skills they didn’t even know they had. If starving, they are capable of eating things they would find disgusting, of running faster then ever, and all different thing from The Saw (maybe not the best example, but bare with me). They are also capable of unthinkable cruelty – killing, torture, and then there are the cases when they ate each other (The Raft of the Medusa); but they can also show extreme bravery and risk their own lives to save others. What you are capable of doing can be altered by the circumstances you’re in, and those circumstances cannot always be predicted. This makes us wonder – would I show my best or my worst?

We also fear the possibility that we might lose our humanity. Dehumanisation seems to be a frequent topic in literature and films as most monsters are actually dehumanised people. We often call the people who did awful crimes “monsters”, but the fact is they are still people. What make people do evil? This question may never be answered.

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Théodore Géricault: “The Raft of Medusa” (“Le Radeau de la Méduse”) – picture taken from Wikipedia