Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Descended into Hell

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, passed away today at the age of 95. 

There will be many words spoken about him in the coming days; I think Brandon treads a measured line in his assessment of Benedict's life and papacy. It's only fitting, at the death of such a prolific and gracious academic, to quote his own words. Here is a passage from Introduction to Christianity, about Christ's descent into Hell, which was a lifeline to me at a time when I was struggling:

...In truth -- one thing is certain: there exists a night into which solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone -- the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is -- hell. 

That brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it. Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev. 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images -- which at first look so mythological -- of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew's Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened ant the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt. 27:52). The door of death stands open since life -- love -- has dwelt in death.

Friday, December 23, 2022


Twelve years ago today, we moved into our house. The first thing we did that first night, Darwin and I and baby Diana, five months old, was buy a Christmas tree and put it up in the curtainless bay window as a greeting to the neighbors. We slept on an air mattress in the vast expanse of our empty room, the baby's fussing echoing throughout every room. The next day, as the movers were finishing up, my family brought up the older four kids for their first glimpse of the place. They ran shouting through the halls. Doors slammed. Closets were investigated. The place was so huge -- how would we ever know what was behind every door?

A few of the doors upstairs

Now I know what, and who, is behind every door. There are still a few light switches that befuddle me, and places like the attic that I don't venture into for months at a time, but I know where I am. We have a tree up today too, though it can't be seen by the neighbors today because we have the curtains drawn against today's bone-chilling wind. (I found snow driven through the casement windows behind the curtains.) We now have seven children. The oldest three have some memories of Texas; the younger four don't remember any other home. 

Jennifer the dummy feels right at home in the front hall.

This home is worth remembering. It is handsome, capricious, tactile. It has quirks that are the stuff of family legend. It has perfectly proportioned nooks, and rooms in which Choices Were Made (I'm looking at you, kitchen). It has an empty shaft where the back staircase used to be, and an asinine pantry where the basement stairs used to be. We have brick and studs where one bathroom used to be. The other four bathrooms are outfitted with the top technology of 1929. We've never used the shower in the master bathroom because it leaks. Until a month ago, our diamond pane windows were so bowed from 100 years of wear on the lead caming that we had gaps large enough to admit a breeze. 

A poor kitchen renovation from 1990 bears its ultimate bad fruit: doors falling off and drawers falling out. That's the bottom of the irreparable silverware drawer sitting on the shelf of the cabinet below.

And I love it. Our house in Texas could never look better than the day it was built; it aged uglier and uglier. This home ages with beauty. Each year it gets richer. We have, perhaps, put more wear and tear on it than any previous generation, but a home is meant to be lived in. If a house can reflect the love it shelters, ours is radiant from the attic beams to the stone foundation. We hope everyone who enters the house soaks up some of our overflowing joy.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Mrs. Dashwood, 13


Here they were again, all crying, except, of course, Elinor. Marianne’s agony billowed from her room in wave after ear-splitting wave, the occasional shriek of “Willoughby!” rising above the inarticulate howls. Margaret too was wailing, less from compassion than from the contagious anxiety of the afternoon. Poor dear child, she’d hoped to come home from a tedious afternoon at Middletons to the reward of a new brother. What she found instead was a sister dissolved in heartbreak and Willoughby distraught, distant, and deceptive. Willoughby was gone now, perhaps forever, and the Dashwood house was rocked to its foundations. Downstairs, Elinor was white-lipped with worry. Upstairs, everything was salt water.

Willoughby’s story of a sudden commission from his old benefactress Mrs. Smith had been strange, his demeanor so alien. Everything spoke of some deception, but how could this be, from our Willoughby? From his first "Hallo!", he had been so open and frank with them. What grief it was thus to discover what ought to have given them confidence: that Willoughby had no talent for lying. Not for him the easy knack of adorning falsehood with a veneer of probability, of saying just what others wanted to hear. The clumsiness of his deception embarrassed him as much as his audience.

Surely they must hear from him soon, even though he had almost taken his oath that he could not visit, could not write, could not even acknowledge the family that had so nearly been his own. To what ungenerous impulse could this behavior be attributed? His every shared glance with Marianne bespoke an ever-deepening trust. Only in refusing to announce their engagement had Willoughby ever withheld anything from the Dashwoods, but in that, he was not alone.  If it was concealment, it was mutual; Marianne, who had never until now kept a secret from her mother, remained steadfastly silent on the subject.

Elinor, of course, doubted him. Even from her childhood, Elinor accepted only certainties; it comforted her to prepare for the worst. It was not a trait she had inherited from her mother. Why should not one believe the best of the people one loved? Willoughby must surely have his reasons, and they must do him credit. Of course the families of the neighborhood would malign him. What less could be expected from those who did not scruple to spare dear Colonel Brandon, when they knew his proven character? In the Dashwood house at least, Willoughby should be defended.

She had already been regaled with accounts of Colonel Brandon’s scandalous behavior from almost everyone present. 

“… and then the letter was handed to him by Thompson… ,” Miss Carey narrated to Mrs. Dashwood Monday over tea.

“No, he brought it in on a salver!” interjected Miss Felicity.

“And he turned positively white. I've never seen anyone look so ill, even at breakfast!”

“He was red, Amelia! I thought he was burning up with fever!”

“And Mrs. Jennings was most importunate about the direction, but he wouldn't tell who wrote it, or what was in it.”

“And then he professed very sorry, but he must needs leave, and we should not go to Whitwell after all! What a to-do, you may be sure!”

“Willoughby thinks he wrote it himself,” murmured Marianne in Miss Carey’s private ear, “to get out of the trip.”

The Misses Carey dissolved into a fit of giggles. Elinor shot Marianne a speaking glance.

“And oh, Mrs. Dashwood,” twittered Miss Felicity, “Lady Middleton was all of a pother. She kept saying…”

“…It must have been extraordinary news to make him leave my breakfast table,” said Lady Middleton to Mrs. Dashwood on Tuesday. The young olive shoots had been left at home, in an abundance of caution lest they catch the dying remnants of Mrs. Dashwood's cold, but Lady Middleton knew what was due her husband's cousin, and made her visit as soon as she heard Mrs. Dashwood was receiving guests.

“I am sure he would never have left your table under less urgent circumstances,” said Mrs. Dashwood patiently. “Colonel Brandon is a gentleman, and would not cause your ladyship distress without good reason.”

“Colonel Brandon is a gentleman,” agreed Lady Middleton placidly. “We will go to Whitwell when he returns. I am sure he will not leave my table again.”

“Perhaps the weather will improve,” suggested Mrs. Dashwood, longing to steer the conversation anywhere else. “I know that the young ladies were quite eager to see Whitwell. It is a most elegant estate, I understand, belonging to Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law. Perhaps you know him?”

Lady Middleton was not to be drawn from her subject. “The Misses Dashwood shall go to Whitwell when Colonel Brandon returns. You will see, he will not leave my breakfast table again so suddenly.”

“…But my dear,” said Mrs. Jennings, settling in on Wednesday for a cozy gossip on the sofa, “I never knew a man such as the Colonel for keeping secrets! You already know about his natural daughter, Miss Williams. She's off at school in Bath, and so sickly, the poor dear, the Colonel is driven nearly to distraction. Speaking of sickly, his sister in Avignon (did you know he had a sister?) is ill, they say, but never can I get a word from him about her health. She is the youngest of them. I never knew the older brother, but Lady Middleton's cook told my woman that he was a bad 'un, and such company as he kept!”

It was a mercy that Mrs. Dashwood had trained her face into a rigid neutrality at the first mention of Col. Brandon, for Mrs. Jennings was not done discovering things from her servants. 

“Of course she meant no harm by it,”  the worthy woman assured Mrs. Dashwood, leaning close, “and all's well that ends well, but a word in your ear. Miss Marianne would do well to get a proposal out of her Mr. Willoughby before she sets foot again in Allingham. Mind you, I don't blame the lass -- who wouldn't want to look at such a grand place, and she to be the mistress one day! But it don't look right, and I shake my head at him, who ought to be more watchful of his own lady's interests. I know they were disappointed when Col. Brandon up and disappeared just like that, without so much as a word to any of us what was so pressing in London. He must needs walk out the door and leave the rest of us to pick our teeth, instead of picnicking. Willoughby was in a fine taking -- you might have thought the Colonel did it just to spite him. And once we'd set upon a nice drive, those two would be galloping away before anyone could catch up to them. But I had my suspicions, and sure enough if he didn't take her to Allingham, and Mrs. Smith not at home! She’s a woman to stand on propriety, so they say. It seems she's not above leaving the place away from him, or on such terms as he might wish it was left away, if he don't give satisfaction. I know we'll all be easier once the pretty business is all settled. Then our young scapegrace can show Miss Marianne all the linen and silverware her heart desires.”

The Dashwoods and their travails would soon be just one more titillating tale to be traded in the drawing rooms of the neighboring gentry, displacing Colonel Brandon’s absence. Mrs. Dashwood knew she ought to be downstairs right now with Elinor, rationally parsing the whole strange situation. She was not downstairs. She was holed up in her room, weeping almost as vehemently (though not nearly as melodramatically) as Marianne. It was a relief, in a way, to have this outlet for her emotions. For these past weeks, she had kept her tears rigidly in check. Now it was as if she had never wept before. 

It was, in its way,  the first time. A week ago – could it only be seven days? – she had watched Colonel Brandon ride away, bearing with him some vital piece of her inside. She was hollow, an emptiness that would not be filled even by Marianne and Willoughby’s increasing happiness. How hard it had been, to go about in front of the girls as if she could breathe, as if her whole being was not expanded beyond itself into one vast ache of yearning. She did not yearn only for the Colonel, although since he had kissed her hand her nerves had given her no peace. He was merely the foundation on which the whole cruel edifice of hope was constructed.

Hope, in her youth, had been a bright peaceful bauble, thrilling and hazy. How naive she had been, how innocent, to imagine it as a safe virtue! As a girl, oppressed by her mother’s ever-present plans to marry her into position and fortune, she would wrap herself in a protective web of dreams. Love mattered, of course, but love could be found anywhere. Perhaps she would marry a rakish lord with a heart of gold, perhaps reform a buccaneer and his pirate crew, perhaps entice a prosperous colonial returned to find a lass of the old country to provide him with sons. She would be seized with longing for she knew not what: something, everything. And she called this amorphous desire hope.

Her juvenile speculations, both theological and romantic, floated untethered to the weight of reality. There was nothing vague about hope. It was sickeningly clear and specific. She grieved the absence of this man, this kind, dignified man, unfailingly patient with Lady Middleton, with never a retort to dignify Willoughby’s murmured witticisms or Mrs. Jennings’s speculations. She memorized the shape of his fingertips as he turned Marianne’s piano music at Barton Park. She sighed over his flannel waistcoat and the not-quite-stout figure it warmed. Hope did not promise a delightful, impossible resolution to this desire. It simply was, a longing deep in her bones and flesh. It blinded, deafened, stunned, consumed. Hope was raising her to life again, and it was killing her.

Had she truly hoped since the moment she had realized that dearest Henry was never coming back to her? There had been glimmers of sunshine now and then, when the happiness of her daughters broke through her own gloom. Her own heart had surged up when Edward Ferrars had first made Elinor blush, only to sink again under Edward’s continued silence and Elinor’s steadfast equanimity. Marianne’s joy in anything was of course infectious, but Willoughby himself had been nothing but delight from the first moment he had risen up out of the mist with Marianne in his arms. To what had she clung, this interminable week, but the hope that Marianne and Willoughby would soon announce what everyone already knew. There was no security in a private understanding. People married for love, yes, but also for stability, for connection, for alliance. A public understanding would give Marianne the right to visit her future home, safe from the energetic malice of the gossips. Now Marianne’s hope was shattered, and her heartbreak thundered through the close cottage. 

Why should she not cry? Why should her heart not be broken? Surely one Dashwood should be allowed a painless course of love. Why could it have not been Marianne, who practiced so little moderation of her moods that the whole house must have its share of both her ecstasies and her disappointments?

She could not stay up here forever. Elinor’s downstairs stoicism was a goad to her self-possession. She steeled herself to meet cynicism with good cheer, doubt with reasoned defense. Colonel Brandon was falsely maligned, but Mrs. Dashwood knew his private agony. So it must be with Willoughby. She at least would continue to believe in his good faith, no matter Elinor’s arguments to the contrary, until time proved to all what she hoped to be – no, what must be – true.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Old School Reunion

Gentle readers: Mrs. Dashwood is not on hold, technically. It's just that last week was fantastic weather in Ohio -- balmy, beautiful, and a little intimidating because if there was any outside work to be done, it had to be done by Thursday, hard stop. So we raked leaves, painted some of the back porch, got up on scaffolding, glazed windows, used oil-based paint for the first time, etc. Even after dark on Thursday, we were out getting the very last warm-weather tasks checked off the list.

On Friday, a rainy day of almost zero visibility, Darwin and I drove to Steubenville for the weekend, to see our oldest daughter in a revival of a show I performed in my senior year of college, and to have a mini reunion with a few drama friends. We stayed in a farmhouse, ate copious amounts of food in accordance with various dietary restrictions, drank moderate amounts of alcohol, and went to bed at reasonable hours. This is what happens when you're old. 

But what creaky pleasure we derived from touring our old theater and announcing to the current students, politely showing the oldsters around, that they don't know how good they have it now, and back in our day we had no air conditioning or light grid, and all we had for prop storage was the corridor up to the lighting booth, and a creepy storage space in a crumbling house in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Adversity builds character. Age hath its privileges.

What delight, also, to talk to old friends as adults. Time has not been gentle to us all, but we've all grown in age, grace, and wisdom. I hope it won't take twenty more years for us to get together again.

Now our weekend of jollity is over. It's freezing outside. Darwin flew out this morning to Baltimore to help cover the USCCB conference with the Pillar crew. I'm considering recaulking the bathtub, another pleasure of the boring homeowner. And somewhere in here more Mrs. Dashwood will be written. After all, she too dreams of making over an old house.

Friday, November 04, 2022

Mrs. Dashwood, 12


The next morning promised fair, after days of rain, and all three girls left in good spirits for breakfast at Barton. Mrs. Dashwood breathed a sigh of relief as she watched them stroll off in a flutter of shawls, Margaret hand in hand with Marianne. Last night Margaret had been in some kind of disgrace which none of the girls quite wanted to explain to her, even -- with a strange new step into adult discretion -- Margaret herself. But as the older girls completed their toilette that morning, Margaret stepped into Mrs. Dashwood's bedroom and asked, "Mama, is it elegant to talk about rain?"

Mrs. Dashwood, nestled in her pillows, stared over her teacup. "Rain? Why?"

"Because Colonel Brandon talked incessantly of rain with Lady Middleton at dinner, and on the way home Elinor said he was a model of tact and delicacy."

"Perhaps Lady Middleton had a great desire to talk about the weather, and Colonel Brandon indulged her." 

"Perhaps," Margaret allowed, "but she does not have much to say about it. She makes the same remark again and again. Do you think that she can be quite intelligent, Mama? Colonel Brandon tried to make more conversation, but all Lady Middleton could say was that it rained very hard."

"Could something have agitated her?" Mrs. Dashwood suggested gently. "Lady Middleton is most fastidious, and seems to find solace in repetition when the conversation becomes too inelegant for her taste."

Margaret became very interested in the drapes. "Mrs. Jennings was teasing about lovers, and Marianne was getting angry, and Colonel Brandon suddenly started talking about rain with Lady Middleton, and Elinor was grateful, I suppose." 

"I suspect that what Elinor praised in Colonel Brandon was not his attentiveness to the weather, but his sensibility of the feelings of others in guiding the conversation away from a topic that caused distress to some."

Margaret's brow furrowed at the complexity of adults. "But Willoughby is sometimes satirical when the Colonel says it will rain, and declares that he does it only to annoy, and Colonel Brandon does not change the topic for him." 

"Colonel Brandon is sensible enough to know the difference between excessive spirits and genuine agitation."

Just then a cry came up from the hall, and Marianne dashed in and bundled Margaret out the door. "Now, Margaret, you are not to tire Mama with chatter and speculation. I do believe it would do you good, though, Mama, to be out of doors with us today. Nothing is so medicinal as a draught of bracing fresh air."

"Nonsense, Marianne," said Elinor, pulling on her gloves. "It is draughts of bracing fresh air that have brought Mama so low. There is a broth warming on the stove which will serve you much better than a turn on a lake, be it ever so exclusive. It is owned by Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law, and we may not get in unless he shepherds us through and offers a guarantee of decorum. We must go now, or Lady Middleton will comment upon our absence at her table. Do you drink your broth, Mama, and blow your nose in peace these several hours."

And then the girls were gone, and the promised peace descended. What bliss, to be wrapped in silence! Never before at Norland had she craved silence. The sounds of small piping speech, Henry's dear laugh, old Mr. Dashwood's rumbles and grumbles, the clatter of servants, the chime of company -- all these she had craved, and sought out when they were not at hand. She had allowed the girls to speak more freely than she had been allowed to as a girl, and rejoiced in their blossoming. Had she been wise? Had she only encouraged Marianne's latent petulance, Elinor's latent sharpness? But surely it had not been wise to be as strict as her mother had been, caring only for the image of decorum with no thought of forming the mind behind the face. And yet, dear Mama... even her scheming had been borne of love, and fear for her children's welfare in a world where marriage decided a woman's lot in life. 

Now I am a widow, dear Mama, with three daughters of my own who must marry if they are to have any money. The income you thought you were providing for me when I married Henry Dashwood, heir presumptive to Norland, has vanished into the coffers of Fanny and her son. What then of all your prudence? At least I had love, where you had none.

Her reverie was interrupted by a clamor at the front door, first a few tentative knocks and then a more urgent rapping. Before she had time to do more than sit up in bed and clutch for her dressing gown, Evans entered the room. "Colonel Brandon desires to see you, ma'am. He's in the parlor."

Mrs. Dashwood rushed downstairs, decorum cast to the wind. She could certainly receive Colonel Brandon in her dressing gown if he came bearing bad news of the girls. Why else would he be here, on the morning of a trip at which he must be present? She entered the parlor with more haste than grace, exclaiming, "Tell me quickly, Colonel. Has Marianne's ankle given way? Was Elinor taken ill? Surely Margaret was not climbing again?"

"I beg you to forgive this intrusion," said Colonel Brandon, clutching his hat and his riding whip, and appearing almost ill himself. "Your daughters are quite well. The only emergency is my own."

"Sir, you are not well!" Mrs. Dashwood exclaimed. "You must sit for a moment, if you can, and have a cup of tea." 

"I cannot spare the time," he said, but then he hesitated. "I must beg your pardon again. No doubt I appear in an alarming state. Indeed, I rushed from the breakfast table at Barton, for which I fear Lady Middleton will not soon forgive me. I told them I had not an hour to spare, but I could not leave without saying good-bye to you. But all is done ill, and I see I have disturbed your rest, and will perhaps have delayed your own recovery."

"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Dashwood, able to take command of the situation now that her apprehensions for the girls were set at ease. "I am not an invalid, though my daughters have doubtless reported me so. I suffer from nothing worse than a cold, which would be soothed if I took some of the broth Elinor ordered for me. And so should you, sir, if you have had no breakfast. Wherever you must go, you will not be served by leaving hungry."

Again Colonel Brandon hesitated, taking a step toward the door, then back toward her. "I have so little time. You must allow me to explain myself, and then leave as soon as may be."

"You shall explain all you like, sir," said Mrs. Dashwood, rallying all her maternal authority, "but you be none the worse for doing it over a mug of broth."

Colonel Brandon allowed himself to be seated at the small table by the window, and Evans was summoned and soon returned with two steaming mugs. Mrs. Dashwood sat in silence to give the Colonel time to collect himself.

"I have confided in no one," he said. "But I must speak to someone. May I confide in you, Mrs. Dashwood? You are a mother, and will perhaps enter into my feelings."

"Certainly, sir," she said, surprised. "I will be happy to assist you by any means within my power."

"I have received a letter this very morning, not thirty minutes ago, from my ward Eliza. I know you have heard of her; Mrs. Jennings speaks of nothing else to all who meet me. Perhaps she has told you that Eliza is my natural daughter."

It was pointless to dissemble politely at this moment. "She did."

"She is not my daughter, though I wish she was so. Nor is she my niece, though I also wish that was so. She is the daughter of my sister-in-law, the late Mrs. Brandon, whose life of suffering I have not the time to recount to you now. Your Marianne reminds me much of her as I knew her when she was young, though Marianne has had all the advantages of wise and loving parents which Eliza lacked. Rather, she was ward to my father, who married her off, much against our wills, to my older brother, and I was sent to the West Indies to learn resignation. From such a cruel match -- for my brother was a cruel man, and a most unnatural husband to my poor Eliza -- she at last rebelled, and in her rebellion she fled with a man who showed her flattering attention. And alas! I was thousands of miles away, though always with her in thought. And young Eliza, my ward, is the child of this first desperate liaison. I have taken such pains to shield her dear dead mother that I have allowed the tell-tales to have their way, provided they sully only my name."

"Your precautions have not been in vain," said Mrs. Dashwood, agog at this unexpected tale of romance and horror told by the weary man sitting opposite her clutching a mug of broth. "If Mrs Jennings knew the true tale, so doubtless would all of Devonshire."

"Some of Devonshire knows some of it," said Colonel Brandon. "Delaford is not so far from here, and all this is within living memory, for," with grim humor, "I am not as old as Miss Marianne believes me to be. But when I came into my brother's estate five years ago, against all expectations and all desire by that point, I pensioned off the older servants who remembered my father and brother and their ways, and set them up far from Delaford. Those who would not help Eliza when she was young and helpless shall have no claim on my house or purse." 

In his anger he rose and strode the confines of the room, fireplace to door and back again. Mrs. Dashwood swallowed the hundred questions that sprung to her lips, and watched him pace with pity in her eyes. At last he slowed his steps, though he did not sit again.

"As I say, this morning I have received a letter from Eliza's daughter, my own ward, named for her dear mother. It was forwarded to me from Delaford, my house, you know. I did my best to provide a father's care for her, without a father's rights or experience, and in my folly I failed her again and again. I thought I could not raise a child, I who had no home of my own until I came unexpectedly into Delaford five years ago. I have tried to provide care for her -- nurses and governesses and finishing school -- without caring for her myself. And yet I could not say no to Eliza, not without seeing my own Eliza who was so often refused in her own unhappy childhood. I allowed her, in February, to travel to Bath with a school friend and her father, a man too ill himself to supervise two girls of sixteen. And in February, Eliza disappeared from Bath. For eight months I have searched for her, with no clue to her whereabouts, or communication from her. For eight months I have waited in fear for this letter, and now I hope I may not be too late."

"Eight months," breathed Mrs. Dashwood, meeting his eyes in sudden comprehension. "You are not too late. But you must indeed leave now, if she is to be settled before her time. Will you bring her back to Delaford?"

At last he sat down across the little table from her again, spent and yet lightened by the act of confession, and by her hoped-for understanding.

"I must make her comfortable," he said. "But I thought to do so in the country far from here, where she has no history and thus no reputation. She is scared and ill and young, and without friend but me, and I must be with her for some time. I do not know when I will be back at Barton or at Delaford, and unless you come to town this winter, I do not know when I will see you again. And so I must say goodbye. It is an undue burden, but I rely on your discretion, Mrs. Dashwood."

"Not a word of what you have told me here will pass my lips," she vowed. "I will swear if if you like."

"No!" he said, standing, and then attempted to check his vehemence. "I beg your pardon once more. But a vow is a sacred thing, and should not be required for less than sacred subjects, lest a person chafe and smother under a burden made heavier by a promise. Indeed, I should not have confided in you if I did not already rely on your trust. I ask nothing of you but that which our Lord instructs, that your yes mean yes and your no mean no."

She had risen as he spoke, and now, as he faced her in the light of the window, she noticed upon his jaw a small glint of stubble, missed by the razor in his morning ablutions. The little shock of domesticity in the midst of sorrow shook her grief-lulled senses awake. With no warning, she was intensely aware that she was standing near enough to this man to see the stubble on his face. In the next instant, she realized to her astonishment that unless she stopped herself by cold force of will, she would lift her hand and brush his cheek with her fingers.

She must not touch him, not at this moment where he needed all concentration and speed. She must not touch him, when he had just entrusted her with the account of his own weakness and failure. She must not touch him, she a widow of less than a year who had not forgotten her own dear husband's touch. 

"You must go, Colonel Brandon," she said briskly enough, she hoped, to cover the split-second delay of wrestling with her impulses. "Time and tide wait for no man, and the same is true of babies."

"I may have need of your advice and counsel," he said, already moving to the door. "May I write to you as I care for Eliza?"

"Yes, of course," she said wildly, ushering him along, willing to do anything to hasten his moment of departure while her resolve was still firm. "I will tell you all I know about the rearing of daughters, and advise you as best I may about the necessities of Eliza's coming confinement. Please tell me how you find her, as soon as you find her."

"I will," he said, hand on the doorknob. "I cannot fully convey my thanks for your kindness to me, and for your gentle mercy toward my poor Eliza, who now stands condemned by the world. Goodbye and farewell, my dear Mrs. Dashwood."

He turned in the open doorway to take her hand in gratitude. For a moment he lingered, seeming to study her hand as it rested in his. Then, as she drew a startled breath, he pressed it to his lips. 

"May we meet again under happier circumstances," he said, raising anguished eyes to her face. After a split second of hesitation, he released her hand and was gone before she could make any reply.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Mrs. Dashwood, 11

It's NaNoWriMo, and a lot has happened since I dropped my project last year. Let's see if I remember how to do this...



There is never a good time to have a cold, but it seemed particularly unfair to be ill now, when everything seemed so promising between Marianne and Willoughby. It was a mother's part to be discreetly present during a courtship, either to discourage inappropriate liaisons, or to prompt amorous suitors to come quickly to the point so as to set a date to be free from supervision. And Willoughby was everything Mrs. Dashwood could have hoped for one of her girls: entirely matched to Marianne's every taste and caprice. So she and Mr. Dashwood had been, in their day, and no marriage could have been happier. 

And now, thanks to this ridiculous cold, caught of gallivanting through the rainy October countryside on one of Sir John's pleasure excursions -- no woman of 40 should be expected to go on a pleasure excursion in the foggy dew!, Mrs. Dashwood ruminated in rheumy petulance -- Elinor was required to shoulder the burden of chaperone, at an age where she should have been requiring a chaperone herself. Mrs. Dashwood fretted under the guilt of relying once again on the strength of her oldest. The guilt ought to have made her more indulgent toward Elinor, but rather it made her defensive. The joy and relief of seeing a daughter likely to be as pleasantly settled as she herself had been, and even more securely tied to an estate and an income, made her quite out of sorts with Elinor's reluctance to enter fully into her sister's raptures. Indeed, Mrs. Dashwood had come across the girls almost quarreling more than once. Both, however, were reluctant to say much about it, and Mrs. Dashwood refused, both on principle and from bitter experience, to force a confidence. 

"Mama, we know so little of him," said Elinor, holding her mending to the window to catch the misty October light. "The acquaintance, though charmingly begun, has been brief. Can a few weeks be enough to reveal a man's character and intentions?"

"A strange question from you, Elinor!" her mother cried, her own mending dropping unheeded. "Did you need long years to study Edward Ferrar's character at Norland? Were his intentions opaque?"

"I am not in possession of any intelligence about Edward's intentions, mama, so there's no point in pumping me," Elinor said with infuriating blandness. "His character I can vouch for as being most admirable, and this I know because of his kindness to Margaret and to all of us at Norland, and his complete dissimilarity to Fanny. Indeed, it took the trial of Fanny's rudeness for his gentleness to be fully displayed." Was Elinor sighing, or just shifting in her chair? "But we have seen Willoughby under no trial worse than weather. His unfortunate propensity to chafe under small burdens of propriety seems of a part with the weaker side of Marianne's character. I would they had something more substantial in common."

"Is taste unsubstantial?" protested her mother, feeling on oddly weak ground against Elinor's . "Is poetry unsubstantial?"

"Bad men have liked good poems."

"Do you have reason then to believe Willoughby bad?" asked Mrs. Dashwood, seized with sudden worry. "My love, if you know anything to his discredit, you must not be afraid to tell me. Your sister's life-long happiness is my desire, and I would not see her robbed of it through a passing fancy. Have you anything definite to lay at Willoughby's door?" Elinor was a deep old file. What difficulties might she try to manage herself, without worrying her mother? Had she witnessed any improprieties that she was covering up so as to keep Mama from distress? Had she overheard some word, some rumor, and now was dropping delicate hints? It was almost impossible to imagine the frank Willoughby in some dark intrigue, but a man was a man, for all that.

Elinor's needlework lay neglected in her lap for a long moment. "No, mama," she said at last. "I have nothing definite to accuse him of. Indeed, I believe him to be, as you suspect, ardently in love with Marianne, and as desirous of her happiness as you are. I only wish that they would be as open with us as with each other."

"That will come in time, my love," said Mrs. Dashwood, in relief. "The openness with each other is all. Their characters are so forthright as to make concealment a burden to them. They will tell us of their engagement soon."

"Then you believe them engaged?" said Elinor, studying her with disconcerting earnestness. "I am glad to hear it."

"Why, yes, my dearest goose," said her mother in surprise. "How can you doubt it? An attachment so quickly, so strongly formed, with no impediment on either side -- I am sure that we will be wishing them joy soon enough. Too soon, perhaps, once we feel the lack of Marianne's sweet presence in our small society."

"Perhaps we already feel that lack," murmumed Elinor, as Marianne entered the room like a clap of thunder and threw herself onto the couch as moodily as her rapidly healing ankle would allow. 

"Where can Willoughby be?" she complained. "Men have so many distractions to amuse them, while women must wait in idleness until such time as men choose to visit them." 

"Only if they so choose," said Elinor with ascerbic mildness. "You see here much distraction in the mending basket, or perhaps you might walk to the kitchen and pick from the amusements on offer there in the broom cupboard or the dishpan." 

"Yes, those who can't ride must walk," snapped Marianne. "What a pity we have no horse, nor no prospect of one."

"Yes, a pity indeed," said Elinor sharply. "A pity that a horse cannot live on air and good intentions, but needs a stable, an extra servant, a groom. Any prudent horseman knows that." 

The girls locked eyes in a battle of wills, but it was Elinor who prevailed. Marianne tossed her tangled curls with what she must have assumed to be careless womanly grace. 

"I myself prefer a generous horseman to a prudent horseman, dearest Elinor."

"Only the prudent horseman can be truly generous, dearest Marianne."

"What is this talk of riding, Marianne?" asked Mrs. Dashwood, disconcerted by the odd discord between her girls. "You know I have no thought of keeping a horse. When you have your own establishment you may keep what accoutrements you will."

"So I have been told," said Marianne, sitting up and reaching for her mending basket beside Elinor's. "Lend me your scissors, Elinor, and let us see if your generosity matches your prudence." 

"Of course, Marianne," said Elinor without inflection. "My scissors are always at your disposal, especially when you have misplaced yours."

Marianne's hand trembled on her basket. "Thank you, Elinor," she said. "I know that you have a generous heart, hide it though you may under your armor of prudence."

And with that, the squall passed and the sisters were once more in cryptic harmony. Their mother, far from feeling relief, was exhausted from trying to navigate the hidden currents of their drama. She sought her handkerchief and tried to blow her nose daintily.

"You must go back to bed, Mama," said Elinor, taking her elbow and steering her, unprotesting, upstairs. "There is no question of you going to dinner with the Middletons tonight."

Nor was there any question of her joining in yet another pleasure excursion conceived by Sir John at the table that night, to see Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law's estate. 

"I am sorry for you, Mama," said Elinor brightly from beneath her shawl, as she brought Mrs. Dashwood an evening cup of tea. "The grounds are said to be lovely. But in this rain...! Colonel Brandon was most solicitous for your health, and begged that you be excused from Sir John's scheme of open carriages and lake excursions in a dinghy. Indeed, I believe that he himself would rather not go, only the plan cannot proceed without him. The steward will not allow visitors without the Colonel himself there."

"I did not not know that Colonel Brandon had a sister," snuffled Mrs. Dashwood. "She must not be at home now. How sad that you will not meet her. I should like to know her."

"I am sure Mrs. Jennings could tell you all about her," said Elinor, turning toward the door. "She wants to know everything about everyone. Goodnight, Mama. Ten to one we shall do nothing more interesting than eat hothouse peaches in a thick mist."


Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Get a Clue!

MrsDarwin as Mrs. White; Isabel as Yvette

 We are gearing up for our production of Clue on Stage this weekend. Production week is familiarly known as "Hell Week". While not actually infernal, this week has definitely been purgatorial in the sense of stripping away every extraneous part of our lives not directly geared toward getting the show on the road. Due to various emergencies, we've lost several key people at the very last minute, and so Darwin has built the tech from scratch in two days, while the majority of the set has been thrown together this week. Everything is coming together -- and it will look great! -- but wow, is it intense.

Let me tell you what -- we could not sustain this level of commitment and firefighting if we did not homeschool. The kids are getting a theatrical education, if nothing else. There is also a major life shift that happens when your youngest child is five, and you have older children who can act, tech, and babysit (that's three separate older children, if you're keeping count). Theater is our family hobby. We don't play sports; we don't travel; we don't do marching band. We renovate a money pit, and we put on shows. 

All this is complicated by most of the family recovering from a respiratory illness (not COVID) that has some long falling action. I can speak now, which I couldn't do last week, and I'm beginning to be able to warble a few notes again. The little kids were Down all last week -- they wouldn't have been at school even if they went. When we had rehearsal, I dosed them up with medicine, tucked them on the couch in front of a movie, and left the 12yo in charge while we were at the theater. Then each night we coughed long into the night. Will this schedule of theatrical activity prolong our recovery? Well, the show must go on...

But what a show! If you're in the Central Ohio area, come see us this weekend! As Wadsworth says, let the games begin.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

What I Really Want To Do Is Direct


It's been curiously silent in these pages the last few weeks.  Life has been rather packed around here.  But I do miss writing, so here's a quick rundown.

Fall has come to Ohio, so it's the time of year when I'm desperately trying to finish home improvement projects before it gets too cold outside. I've had scaffolding blocking our driveway for the last couple weeks, as I cut a hole for the bathroom vent fan in the Great Bathroom Remodel.  And since I had a way to stand twenty feet above the ground and work on the, I'm taking the opportunity to reglaze and repaint the windows on that side of the house too.

I'm also learning a new type of data analysis.  As the Church moves into the "continental phase" of the Synod on Synodality, I'm working on a text analysis project for The Pillar looking at how what words and concepts are most discussed in the synodal reports for dioceses, regions, and the US as a whole.  I'm using a program called KH Coder which does quantitative content analysis.  You might find interesting this tutorial I used to get familiar with the software, in which the authors load the full text of Anne of Green Gables into the software and analyze which characters appear together, how they are described, and which verbs are most often associated with which characters.  It's been a slower process than I would like, both due to over-commitment on my part and having to learn a whole new type of data analysis.  And although readers here have probably already heard many times about The Pillar, it's worth noting that it's extraordinary that a startup Catholic news site would invest in having someone put a month or two into this kind of analysis in order to provide a unique view of how the synodal process is going.  They really do deserve your subscription.

Work, of course, has been busy. I imagine no one will be surprised to hear that the levels of inflation that we're seeing around the world leads to lots of work for those of us in the pricing game.  I had the chance to go down to Houston and give a talk at a pricing conference for the first time since the pandemic.  It was good to talk with a bunch of other professional pricers in person again. One of the tough things about being in a specialized field like this is one tends to be a unicorn within one's own company, so if you want to talk with other pricers you need to connect with people in other companies.

And, of course, we're fast approaching performances in the production of Clue On Stage which I'm directing for our community theater. If you're in central Ohio, do get tickets and enjoy it on Oct 28, 29, and 30.  One of the things that's so enjoyable about community theater is that it brings together people from all walks of life who share a love of theater, and give everyone a project which builds a great deal of comradery.  I feel very lucky in our cast and crew, and also lucky to have been given the chance to direct a show (something that I haven't done since college, although I've acted in a half dozen of the group's shows since we moved up here.) Directing requires some artistic and conceptual work, but also a lot of organizational and person-to-person work. In that sense, it combines the kind of things I enjoy about fiction writing with the aspects of my professional life I enjoy. And it really has been a lot of fun.

Though of course, it wouldn't be the week before production week if we didn't have nearly the entire family come down with a respiratory bug (not COVID, but some sort of nastiness that's going around.)  MrsD lost her voice last weekend and is only gradually getting it back, and the kids are all going around hacking like aging smokers.  So far, I've managed to evade it, but we'll see how long my luck holds.

So it's an eventful fall in the Darwin household. Indeed, one could even be happy with a slightly quieter November and December.  But many good (and a few just plain busy) things are happening. Hopefully we'll become more regular writers soon.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Not Enough Power, Not Enough Ring

We're six episodes into the first season of The Rings of Power, Amazon's foray into the backstory of Lord of the Rings. Each Friday night we log in with Brandon Watson and spend an hour or so gaping in astonishment at how even $500 million dollars is not enough these days to buy half-way competent storytelling. The show is visually compelling (though it often doesn't pay to think too much about the logic, or lack thereof, behind the imagery, which is the perfect example of what Brandon and I have styled Fake Awesome.

Brandon has written about Rings of Power through the lens of Aristotle's elements of drama:

I want to try at least to be nice about it. I think it is good to have Tolkienesque things, and I think the Chestertonian dictum that something genuinely worth doing is worth doing even if done badly is at least often right. The situation underlying the show is unpromising, since they only have the right to use information from the LOTR appendices that are not licensed for other things. This makes it already difficult to build anything coherent, and it is ill-advised, in and of itself, to take a literary work that is famous for its unusual degree of worldbuilding coherence and try to adapt it under circumstances in which you are unlikely to do justice to that coherence. Nonetheless, I think here and there you can see that there was potential, and given that there is so much to complain about, I do want to recognize the potential. Nonetheless, the criticisms very easily crowd very thickly.

Let's take the Aristotelian elements: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Spectacle. Those are, roughly, from most important to less important, at least for serious drama and epic, and I think one obvious problem with the show is that the importance of its elements are reversed...

And Darwin recently wrote about how he would restructure the beginning of the series to focus on Tolkien's actual mythology, instead of a half-baked modern fantasy narrative

Aside from having a more clear and fast moving plot (it's rather shocking in terms of writing that we are five episodes into an eight episode season and the series plot is only now slowly coming into shape, while the individual episodes themselves do not tend to have a satisfying plot and resolution of their own) my premise here is that the changes the series would most need would be in the themes which drive the Elven and Numenorian parts of the story, and in particular those which drive Galadriel. Morfydd Clark is certainly giving the role her skill, but the writing she's being given doesn't give her much to work with, and it just doesn't seem to fit with a character who is one of the oldest and most powerful elves in Middle Earth at the time of the story.

One of the qualities of mythology is a storytelling that steps out of the everyday into the realm of epic, where every element becomes an archetype. When people retell stories from mythology, they usually humanize them by adding episode, interactions dealing with small moments in the larger plot that show characters grappling with choices, emotions, and the little human moments of life. These moments of episode bring the listener into the myth by giving them the chance to identify with the choices the characters make.

One reason why Lord of the Rings is a far more compelling subject for drama than is the Silmarillion (or the Appendices, which are what the show's creators actually have the rights to use) is that there is a dearth of episode in the ancillary materials to LOTR. What makes The Lord of the Rings a classic of world literature is smallness played against largeness -- the little human moments of humor, terror, and moral choice enacted against a backdrop of danger and grandeur almost too sweeping to comprehend. This little object, a golden ring, bears within it the power to destroy everything Frodo loves. This little hobbit, Frodo, takes on an enormous burden that only he is small enough to carry. The powerful cannot be trusted with the ring precisely because they are powerful and do powerful things. Frodo (and later, Sam) are both humble enough that they have no scope for wielding the ring to the destruction of empires, empires which consist of multitudes of unnamed people and leagues of untamed land. And the hobbits' character arcs are expressed in the small hidden choices that most of us make each day, unnoticed and unapplauded. The pity of Bilbo shall rule the fates of many, says Gandalf -- a small, mundane pity that was expressed in one or two lines in the Hobbit. Bilbo sees the misery of Gollum, understands it, and forbears to strike him when he might have done so with no consequences to himself. It is a little thing in the larger narrative, a little bit of episode that Bilbo himself doesn't dwell on. And yet it is the hook on which the whole saga hangs.

The Silmarillion and Appendices have few small moments. Most of the narrative involves larger-than-life events enacted by larger-than-life characters with larger-than-life motivations. There are few pauses for conversations or deliberations, and what moments do exist are narrated in an elevated style. And so, our show runners must create the small moments of episode which turn the story from documentary to drama. How do they do with this act of sub-creation?

Not especially well, as it turns out. The show comes up short on two fronts:

1. It is poor Tolkien.

2. It is poor writing.

In an act of self-restraint that few will understand but most will appreciate, I will forebear to elaborate on point #1. The writers deviate significantly from Tolkien's mythology, something which I could forgive if by doing so they made the plot more streamlined and the characters more intelligible. They do neither. Every episode is more confounding than the next. Nothing makes more sense as time goes on. No one's motivations become clearer.

Almost no one's. As in many works of fan service, the most compelling characters and episodes are the ones the writers have created themselves. Adar, leader and Father of the Orcs, is not in Tolkien, but not inconsistent with him either. He is, as best we can tell, a fallen Elf, captured and corrupted by Morgoth long ago, and although we don't know his full story, we believe that there is something he wants, and that he knows how to get it. He is dramatically complex and his dialogue resonates. When he is onscreen, I believe. 

He is also emblematic of the problems of this show, which is that the writers have little faith in the power of goodness. They do not know how to write it. Adar is compelling because he is twisted: his compassion and will to heal are expressed in specific cruelties and atrocities. By contrast, the characters who are supposed to represent what is good are mired in a morass of cliché and paint-by-numbers scenes. Everyone except Adar must express conflict through escalating bickering, repetitive and unenlightening. The Elves bicker. The humans bicker. The dwarves bicker. Diplomacy breaks down into bickering. Only Adar is above bickering. He knows other ways to get what he wants, and hence his small moments of episode are dramatically interesting, and their tension earned.

"Unearned" is how a friend described the plot payoffs of Rings of Power, and I think it's fair assessment. Things happen because the writers feel them necessary. Character choices feel rammed into a plot template rather than flowing organically from the motivations of the people making the choices. Gil-Galad, the Elven king, should be a character of power and majesty capable of facing Sauron himself, yet here he is a banal bureaucrat with a strange incuriosity about the major threats facing Middle Earth. Galadriel fights because... because she doesn't know who she is if she puts down her sword. Elrond and Durin, the Dwarf prince, face a breach in their friendship which seems rooted in nothing more than the writers' need for some easy conflict. Celebrimbor, grandson of Fëanor, whose pride in his craftsmanship set the Elves on the destructive course that mars so much of the history of Middle Earth, says a line or two about wanting to equal his grandfather's accomplishments, but his mushy character turns what ought to be an exercise in power and pride and skill into an exercise in construction project management. Numenor, the great island kingdom given to the humans who fought a millenia ago as partners with the Elves against Morgoth the fallen angel, can not gin up any controversy more compelling than labor disputes and guild membership, and every controversy and conversation there seems half-baked. Almost every scene in the series plays better as an outline (X pushes back here; Y demands a decision, X reacts defensively) rather than interactions that specific people would have.

The spectacular elements also feel unearned. A calvary charge, meant to be a eucatastrophe in the finest Tolkien tradition, feels more the show runners knew the fans wanted an echo of the charge of the Rohirrim rather than something that would be plausible, or even possible, in this particular scenario. A victorious battle strategy relies on a Rube Goldbergesque series of manipulations and demolitions, which leads to questions on the part of the viewer -- why would the people who initially constructed this fortress build it in this way in the first place? Nothing makes any sense except as a means to further spectacle or plot machinations. 

If this show has a redeeming aspect, it's that it's allowed for small acts of friendship for us, as we text in indignation and pedantry while watching simultaneously in Ohio and Texas. But how much better would have been to be united in appreciating a good show, Tolkien well told? That's a pleasure that we have yet to know.

Friday, September 30, 2022

If I Ran The Zoo: Rings of Power

 Although the show itself has been unsatisfying in many respects, discussing Rings of Power has been quite an enjoyable pastime for us lately. Brandon provides a very good breakdown of the show's strengths and weaknesses based on the Aristotelian elements (Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Spectacle) which is worth your time.

MrsDarwin and I have been re-reading the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, both seeking a corrective and also discussing amongst ourselves how a prestige TV series based on the Second Age of Middle Earth, and with a plot similar to what the series has provided might have been done more successfully.

Aside from having a more clear and fast moving plot (it's rather shocking in terms of writing that we are five episodes into an eight episode season and the series plot is only now slowly coming into shape, while the individual episodes themselves do not tend to have a satisfying plot and resolution of their own) my premise here is that the changes the series would most need would be in the themes which drive the Elven and Numenorian parts of the story, and in particular those which drive Galadriel. Morfydd Clark is certainly giving the role her skill, but the writing she's being given doesn't give her much to work with, and it just doesn't seem to fit with a character who is one of the oldest and most powerful elves in Middle Earth at the time of the story.

The series begins (as did the movie of Fellowship of the Ring) with a voiceover flashback narrated by Galadriel.  This is a good way to start the series, but the one which the show runners provided is oddly muddled in theme. How might a good one go?

[dark screen]

Galadriel: We are lesser than we were. And fewer. Yet our power is still great.  It began, in the blessed realm, when the world was so young that the sun had not yet risen.

[Scene fades up to Galadriel walking through the hills of Valinor. She crests the hill, and in a sweeping shot we see the two trees, lighting the world before the sun.]

Galadriel: The great powers, whom some mortal men call gods, walked before our very eyes, and taught us of the world and its secrets. And in the clear light of the trees, we learned skill and wisdom. Elvish craftsmen built in wood and stone.

[image of a soaring building of stone, and then zooming in to look at the wooden roof, and a single craftsman who is applying minute detail of gold leaf to carved wooden scrollwork -- the building is a work of art to the tiniest detail]

Galadriel: Our shipwrights learned to harness wind and water from Ulmo, the power that formed the very oceans themselves.

[image of ships]

Galadriel: And our greatest craftsman fashioned jewels which captured the very light of the trees.

[image of Faenor holding aloft the Silmarils, while Galadriel watches with forboding. Faenor places the Silmarils in chest of iron, and High King Finwe rests his hand on it]

Galadriel: But our happiness and our skill stirred envy in Morgoth, the great enemy, who willed to take or destroy all that was beautiful in the world. He stole the very light of our realm

[image of the trees being poisoned and dimmed]

Galadriel: And he stole the greatest work of our skill

[image of Finwe slain, the chest broken open, and Morgoth's hand closing on the Silmarils]

Galadriel: Some among the elves swore revenge, and abandoned the blessed realm, letting none stand in their way.

[image of the taking of the ships and the slaying of the Teleri who attempted to keep the ships from Faenor and his sons]

Galadriel: And even those who did not approve every deed done in the heat of anger, longed to punish Morgoth. To end his dominion over Middle Earth, and guide its peoples as we ourselves had once been guided.

[image of Galadriel and Finrod watching the flames leap up from Alqualonde, but then continuing on anyway.  Now we get the map showing us the way across the seas to Middle Earth.]

Galadriel: But we had chosen a foe beyond our power.

[battle at the gates of Angband, with dragons, balrogs, etc.]

Galadriel: The elves fought many battles against Morgoth, and they did great deeds. We built great fortresses and realms hidden from the eyes of evil. But against his power we could not prevail, until at last the Valar came and overthrew the evil, and banished Morgoth from the world for ever.

[Again the great battle, transitioning to desolation. A glimpse of the great cities of the elves such as Gondolin.  Then Earendil sailing west to Valinor. A brief image of the Valar coming, Ulmo rising from the sea, the breaking of Angband, the land convulsed with fire and earthquakes.]

Galadriel: The very earth was broken. Many of the servants of Morgoth were destroyed -- but not all. Sauron, the greatest of his lieutenants, fled into the east in secret.  

[Sauron followed by orcs and evil men]

Galadriel: The Valar offered pardon to the elves who had abandoned the Blessed Realm to seek revenge on Morgoth, and urged them to return. Many did.  

[elves setting sail into the west]

Galadriel: But some chose rather to travel eastward. 

[Galadriel, Celeborn, Gil Galad, and Elrond with an elven host.]

Galadriel (speaking to the host, not the narrator voice): Angrod, Aegnor, and Felagund are slain. I am the last of Finarfin's children. No wrong has the house of Finarfin done that I should ask pardon of the Valar. And how, after all these great deeds, should we return and serve again as children under instruction in the Blessed Realm?  Here we are mightier. We can lead both elves and men in Middle Earth. And keep watch against the return of the servants of our eternal enemy.

[the elven host led by Galadriel turns away from the ships and the Valar, and travels in montage over broken lands and then high mountains into the as-yet un-fought-over East.]

Narrator Galadriel: There we built mighty kingdoms and taught the lesser peoples and preserved much of beauty in the world.

[elves building and making]

Narrator Galadriel: To those mortal men who had fought against Morgoth in the great war, the Valar offered a different reward. No mortal could set foot upon the shores of the Blessed Realm, but to these men was given an island just within sight of the glittering shores. This island the men called Numenor, and it became the greatest of mortal kingdoms. They were great builders and seafarers. And for many years they were the friends of elves.

[the buildings of Numenor, and their ships sailing across the ocean. Elves and Numenorians speaking and exchanging gifts. Galadriel is seen walking along the outcrop wall of the palace in Numenor with several Numenorians.]

Narrator Galadriel: But as the years turned into centuries, the men of Numenor asked more and more why it is given to them to age and die, while to the elves is given immortality.

[Galadriel is seen walking with a king of Numenor along a peaceful stretch of grass.  She turns, and now he is old, and then she watches his body carried into a great tomb of white stone. Another fade, and the there is now a whole line of tombs, but Galadriel has not aged, unless perhaps in her expression, as she looks at the line of tombs.]

Narrator Galadriel: And so as their power grew, their friendship with the elves waned.  It is now many years of men since I, or any elf, have set foot in Numenor.

[Galadriel sailing away from Numenor in an elven ship.]

Narrator Galadriel: There are other men, who still dwell in Middle Earth. These are descended from those who served Morgoth in the great war, or those who took no part in it. We teach these mortals and guide them. But we watch them also, looking always for the return of the shadow which once was. 

[elves teaching men skills. The king of a mortal kingdom bowing before Gil Galad.]

Narrator Galadriel: And always the elves seek to preserve that which is beautiful in the world. For as the years pass, it seems that life and beauty and all things, save elves, are ever more fleeting.

[The seasons turning. A beautiful tree growing up and spreading its branches, and dying.]

Celebrimbor approaches Galadriel carrying Elessar, the elf stone, a great green jewel set in silver.

We now transition from the intro to "now" in the series. Celebrimbor shows the elf stone to Galadriel, telling her that he has captured within it the very growing and healing power of the trees. If you look through it, you can see thing healed and made new, as they once were.

Galadriel marvels at the stone and tells him that it is his best work yet. But, she says, as precious as it is, it provides only the image of what was. 

Yes, Celebrimbor says. For now. But he believes it is possible that he can forge a stone of such power that it will be able to restore the hurts of the world in truth.

Galadriel doubts this. It is the nature of the all things in Middle Earth to pass.

Until now, says Celebrimbor. Until now.

He leaves Galadriel and returns to his workshop.  It's a beautiful workspace, and it contains much beautiful workmanship he has produced.

A shadowy figure steps moves in the next room.  "Did you tell her?"

Celebrimbor: "Yes. But she does not yet believe that it is possible."

Shadowy figure, "Then you must show her."

What do we get out of this opening? Most important, I think, is we get the theme of pride as Tolkien conceived of it, which is closely allied to the Christian idea of what the sin of pride is. While Galadriel is never tempted to become a cruel tyrant of the model of the dark lord Sauron, she is very much tempted to ignore the just commands of the Valar and the free will of other, lesser, people, in order to indulge her own desire to rule and impose what she believes is good order upon others and the world. Galadriel would rather rule in Middle Earth than serve in Valinor. And her desire for tools to power (such as the One Ring would be when it is offered to her in the final test of her will in Lord of the Rings) is motivated by that desire to rule over others for what she believes (mostly rightly) is the good.

So here we get a true sense of how the elves rebelled both to punish Morgoth but also out of a desire to rule over Middle Earth as the Valar had ruled over them -- without regard for the fact that the Valar as angelic beings are more justly ordered to rule over the elves than the elves are to rule over men.

We also see how Numenor has come to resent the elves and the Valar because as men the Numenorians are mortal. And thus we see the seeds of the conflict which will lead to the great wave. And then we see Celebrimbor as the maker of great and powerful things, who is already being tempted by someone to take his craft further in the creation of objects of power.

Now, as I said, my assumption here is that the series would have roughly the same sets of characters as it does now, but that each plotline should be doctored to have more Tolkien-esque themes and also to have interesting plot and characters.  So here's my rundown of how each set of characters would work:

High Elves & Dwarves of Moria -- In this plotline, the craft of the elves in the kingdom of Gil Galad is at its height, and elven smiths work in alliance with the dwarves of Khazad Dum.  Newly arrived among them is a secretive smith named Annatar, who says that he has come as a messenger from Aule and the other Valar with skills to share. The dwarves he teaches of mine mithril, and encourages them to delve deeper and deeper for it. With the elves, he works to make gems and rings of power. Celebrimbor is at first his avid friend, but over time he begins to distrust him, mainly because Annatar seems too eager to share and collaborate in all of Celebrimbor's work, even that which Celebrimbor would like to be his own, and perhaps secret. Durin, too, at first sees Annatar as a great friend. But Annatar is too eager to pry into dwarven secrets, and his eagerness for mithril is without concern for the ever greater risks run by the miners as they delve deeper.

Galadriel does not trust Annatar, even at the beginning, but she does not suspect who he really is. She knows that there was no one like him among Aule's followers, for she knew them and learned from Aule in the blessed lands. But she takes him for an ambitious and unscrupulous smith. She is more troubled by tidings that come to her and Celeborn, of disturbance in the lands to the east. There the elves who serve as guardians of the Southlands report that orcs have been seen, and that in secret some men have begun to revive the dark cults from the times of Morgoth.  She send out her daughter Celebrian along with her young friend Elrond to find out what they can about these disturbances.

The Southlands -- These two younger elves, who seem to have some chemistry building between them, set out for the Southlands. Here a small number of elves rules over a teeming human kingdom via a human administrative elite (distrusted by lower caste humans).  There are some uncomfortable reminders of the British and the Raj in how the "guardianship" of the Southlands operates. Arondir (from the series) is the commander of an Elven garrison. Bronwyn is one of the elite caste, chosen by the elves to rule of the mortals, and moved around as administrators so that they will not have their own local power. Her authority rests not on the loyalty of the humans but on the military presence of the elves and their mortal janissary-type soldiers. 

However, out in the villages, men have begun to carry out dark rites. At night they wear the skulls or horses or cows, sacrifice animals to the "dark lord" and call out for the power to throw off the yoke of elvish domination.  They are visited by an emissary who promises them all they could wish. He is Adar, and those who have come with him are orcs. The men swear fealty to him.

Soon a major revolt breaks out in the Southlands, with Adar and his orcs providing support. Bronwyn and Arondir try to make a defense of the city, with Bronwyn trying to convince more of the human population to fight -- struggling to become a real leader to them when up until now she was an imposed one.

She and Arondir get Elrond and Celebrian out of the city, but they're cut off from the road back north. Instead they take the river south, where at the Bay of Belfalas they meet a Numenorian ship captained by Elendil. Although it is long since the Numenorians have had much contact with the elves, Elendil is one of "the faithful" who still consider themselves elf friends. At the request of Elrond and Celebrian, he takes them to Numenor. There they find that the king Tar Palantir has recently suffered a stroke. He had sought to change the direction set by his father and grandfather, both of whom opposed the valar an the elves, and who had let the rituals honoring Eru Iluvitar to fall into disuse. Now many who opposed Tar Palantir's return to the old ways argue that his stroke at such a young age is a sign that there is no favor to be found in the old rituals.

Numenor -- Tar Palantir's daughter Miriel is serving, precariously, as steward while hoping that her father will soon recover enough to return to active rule. When Elendil brings the two elves to her, with news of the orc-supported rebellion in the Southlands, she calls a council, but does so secretly for fear of the reaction that the presence of the elves will cause.

However, Pharazon, one of the nobles who had till now been one of her father's greatest critics, eagerly leaps on the idea of leading an expedition to aid the elves and put down the rebellion. He even nominates himself to lead the expedition. But as scores of Numenorian ships prepare to set sail for Middle Earth, it becomes clear that he believes this is the perfect opportunity to expand Numenorian control in Middle Earth. No longer will they control only the havens where they trade with the leser men of Middle Earth. Now they will seize the Southlands for themselves, both enriching Numenor and taking away one of the satellite elven kingdoms. 

And the Harfoots?  Honestly, I'm not all that clear what the point of them is. I'm guessing that the Stranger is a proto-wizard who will find his mission is opposing Sauron. I guess that plot can stay, but we should get rid of the idiotic wagon nomad stuff and not have so much wasted time.

So that's how I'd re-work the series. And I'd like to think it would be a much more compelling approach than what we've seen so far.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Brideshead Unvisited

 In a Church Life Journal article from 2021 (brought to my attention today because it was reposted on their Facebook page), Joseph Tulloch offers this confounding example of literary analysis:

There is a passage from Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s otherwise superb 1945 novel, that has always bothered me. The protagonist, Charles, at this point in the narrative an agnostic, asks Lady Marchmain, the devoutly Catholic head of the wealthy, aristocratic Flyte family, about Jesus’s saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Her response is astonishing:

“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the same crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”

I was puzzled, when I first encountered this reflection, by Lady Marchmain’s attempt to explain away Jesus’s teaching on poverty. Surely, I thought, it could not be Christian for the Flytes, or anyone else, to hoard wealth while their neighbors starved. I was struck, too, by the thought that, given the overall context of the novel, an ode to the vanished splendor of the English aristocracy of the 1920s, as well as his own well-known conservative views, this seemed to be Waugh’s own position—and, to judge by their behavior, that of countless other Christians.

It is clear to me, looking back, that my initial reaction to this passage was justified—Waugh’s position is both morally indefensible and thoroughly un-Catholic. The Church has, throughout the centuries, consistently held that anyone with money must go to extreme lengths to help those without.

This ancient moral teaching is especially interesting because it has come to be accepted by a growing number of modern, secular ethicists inspired by the controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose views on many other issues—most notably the permissibility of infanticide—could not be further from those of the Church.

Doubtless others will engage with Tulloch's presentation of Peter Singer's charitable imperatives, but I stuck right here in the opening paragraphs with this misreading of Brideshead Revisited. Lady Marchmain here is expressing Lady Marchmain's thoughts. By her own lights, she is cleverly engaging in an irrefutable paradox, but here at least Tulloch is right: she is trying to "explain away Jesus's teaching on poverty." 

But Waugh as author doesn't present Lady Marchmain as a moral paragon. She is, despite her personal piety, a flawed, destructive character who uses her charm and wealth to manipulate others. Socially, she is very successful at this; in the more intimate setting of family and home, she alienates her family precisely because she's terrified to give them the freedom to sin. At this point in the novel, she's turned her considerable charm on Charles Ryder, in an attempt to win his soul for the Church and enlist him to keep Sebastian, her alcoholic son and Charles's best friend, under surveillance. Her argument here is disingenuous, Waugh's subtle criticism of the grip Chestertonian paradox has on the Catholic imagination. (If he were writing today, he'd skewer the current infatuation with Flannery O'Connor's Southern-gothic grace.)

The strangeness of this analysis of Brideshead Revisited, as well as the question of how it got past the editors at the Notre-Dame sponsored Church Life Journal, reminds me of Bishop Barron's use of the chapel in Brideshead Revisited to bolster his favorite theme of Beauty as Evangelization

In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time.  “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s.  In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.”  To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic.  Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel which was a riot of baroque decoration.  Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education.  The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again. 

This article, recently rerun at Word on Fire, was first published in 2013, and I wrote about it then, the gist of which was this is a bizarre reading of Waugh's novel. (Then-Father Barron may have been remembering the otherwise faithful BBC series, in which the chapel as well as the house is a "riot of baroque decoration".)  In Waugh's text, the chapel has been ruthlessly renovated as a wedding present from Lord to Lady Marchmain (a foreshadowing of their disastrous marriage) and redone in the most tacky contemporary style, Arts and Crafts, hopelessly dated by the 1920s. The house may be "an entire artistic education", but to Charles Ryder's trained eye, it is hideous. Here is his initial impression:

The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the arts-and-crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the wallls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been moulded in Plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pock-marked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies.

'Golly,' I said.

Throughout the novel, the chapel is a symbol of how the falsity of poor art can stand between an aesthetic soul and God.

"You're an artist, Ryder (says Brideshead), what do you think of it aesthetically?"

"I think it's beautiful," said Cordelia with tears in her eyes.

"But is it Good Art?

"Well, I don't know what you mean," I said warily. "I think it's a remarkable example of its period. Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired."

"But surely it can't be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years and not be good now?"

"Well, it may be good now. All I mean is that I don't happen to like it much."

The aesthetic glamor of the house can't stem the moral decay of the family, and the aesthetic atrocity of the chapel still holds Truth, if unmediated by Goodness or Beauty. But Charles does learn to see God despite ugliness: at the end of the book he kneels in the chapel, a broken and bereaved convert, before "a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design".

No novel is immune from criticism, and any book of quality ought to be able to handle literary criticism. But Brideshead is The Catholic Novel, and it deserves a higher quality analysis than this, especially from those who would speak for and to the Catholic intelligensia.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Rings of Power-Outage

We've been making a weekly ritual of watching the Amazon Prime series Rings of Power, and then spending an hour or so after each episode (both MrsDarwin and I in person, and also a friend back in Texas via Messanger) discussing what we've just seen.

This is not because what is on display is amazingly good. I suppose it's more like how I remember my parents watching the initial season of Star Trek the Next Generation and then sitting up after each episode to discuss how it could have been written better.


What the show does well is art direction. Virtually everything is visually interesting, and the camera seems to know this and spends lots of time lingering on striking images.  Some of these visually interesting things don't make a lot of sense. The Harfoots -- (proto-Hobbits) who are apparently nomads who use heavy wagons but no draft animals and are constantly weaving plants into their hair in ways which must be very impractical -- are prime offenders in the not-making-sense department. But all of it looks good, even if sometimes the visuals don't stand up to much thinking.

The biggest issue, to my mind, has been the writing. The show is structured as an eight episode season, reportedly the first of at least five seasons.  And yet, episodes do not have a self contained episode structure at all.  Each one juggles 3-5 separate storylines from sets of characters that seldom intersect, and rather than having an episode arc which resolves at the end of the episode, within a longer series arc which slowly moves forward, each episode is simply an installment of a clearly much longer story. As a result, after watching five episodes (more than half the season) we still have the feeling that the story is just getting off the ground and most of what we've seen is set up. The experience is like watching a massive, eight hour Marvel movie -- but with even more characters and a very slow moving overall plot.

Aside from this odd pacing, the writers have picked a set of plots which require them to present a lot of diplomacy and politics, and yet they also do not seem particularly good or interested in writing about those subjects. The compelling and memorable moments of Rings of Power are all small scale. This is not a Lion In Winter type story where the person politics sizzle, nor is it a Henry V where key scenes hinge on the ability of a leader to forge a personal connection with his followers and inspire them to accomplish something great. The most human moments here are small scale -- the affectional bickering of a dwarven couple, the struggle of a captured elf to escape, etc. 

I've heard it said that the controversial thing about the series is its multi-ethic casting. However, what struck me as more of an issue is the lack of any sense that the characters belong to specific peoples with histories. For instance, we see a dwarf princess who is played by a Black actress.  And yet, she has exactly the same faux Scottish accent which the series creators decided all dwarves should have.  There are not multiple peoples among the dwarves, with different accents and skin colors. It's just that this one character (one of the most engaging ones, I must say) is Black for no particular reason.

Similarly, among the group of proto-Hobbits, one of the leaders of the clan is Black and several others look vaguely ethnic, while all the others are white. They all have exactly the same accent. There are no apparent racial divisions between the Harfoots. They've just taken what might otherwise have been an all white group and thrown in a couple other ethnicities.  That might make sense in a school story or a suburban drama situated in a large and diverse country, but it seems a trifle unusual in a tiny band of hunter gatherers wandering Middle Earth. It's not that he's Black which is the issue.  They could easily have made the entire cast of Harfoots Black and that would have been completely explicable. But instead we get a racial sprinkling in a way that doubtless makes sense in Hollywood but makes little sense in an insular and primitive culture.

In Numenor too, we see little racial diversity overall, and yet the queen is clearly of some sort of mixed race or non-white background. Her father, whom we meet, is white as the proverbial sheet. As a friend pointed out: Numenor was formed out of three houses of men who had allied with the elves in the great war against Morgoth. The show-runners could have decided to have one of these houses be Black, and place more of an emphasis on Numenor being made up of three houses with different original backgrounds. That, again, would have provided a certain texture to the background. But instead what the writers spend a good deal of time talking about in Numenor is various guilds (builders, blacksmiths, etc.) which apparently have great power and stringent licensing requirements. 

Across multiple plot lines, I found myself wondering if the writers particularly believed in these cultures as stand alone cultures. 

The Harfoots are nomads, but they have a huge amount of heavy material ill suited to their wandering lifestyle, and some very odd technology choices such as using lanterns full of fireflies instead of lanterns containing a burning wick. They carry a massive book around with them in which is stored their lore, and they all wear textiles despite not having either wool bearing animals or fields of fibrous plants (nor does this seem likely to come from trade as they hide from all 'outsiders'.) So their material culture seems unlikely in many ways. And the scattershot approach to casting goes with this. Harfoots appear to be a very small population of diminutive humans. We get not particular indication that there are other bands of them, or that those bands meet and mix. And yet the differences in skin pigmentation, hair, eye color, etc. which we associate with "diverse" casting are differences which arose when human populations were separated for periods of thousands if not tens of thousands of years. 

This is not an argument against diversity in the overall cast of a series set in Middle East.  There is no reason that everyone in Middle Earth should be white. But it does seem like things should be explicable in terms of actual populations with movements and histories and cultures.  If a setting is supposed to be a cosmopolitan melting pot of different peoples from around middle earth, it would make sense for the characters there to be from a number of different backgrounds. But if a setting is supposed to be more insular, it seems like the casting should be based upon the idea that there are one or several distinct peoples who make up that setting. In this regard it would have made a lot more sense to have all the Harfoots be played by Black actors. (And for anyone who thinks such a thing doesn't make sense in the comparatively short timelines of Middle Earth: the European hunter gatherers, who populated the continent prior to the middle eastern farmers and steppe peoples migrating in, appear to have been people who had dark skin, and that's 6000 to 8000 years ago, an amount of time not shocking compared to Tolkien's ages.) Similarly, instead of casting a Persian actress to play Bronwyn while casting most of the rest of the people in the Southlands as generic medieval grunge, it would have been much more interesting to both cast all of those characters from that part of the world, and also to give them some kind of culture in terms of textiles and building styles.  As it stands, only Bronwyn even gets to wear colors, with everyone else wearing frayed rough cloth of grey or brown.

[From here the piece does mention plot points which occur within the first five episodes of Rings of Power, so feel free to skip if you do not want these revealed.]

 Although there's a lot one can criticize in the writing and pacing of the series, the gaping hole at the center is in world building and character. 

From a character point of view, the biggest single problem is with Galadriel. While in Tolkien's stories Galadriel is one of the greatest of the High Elves, here she is a lone warrior who is totally incapable of controlling her own mouth. In the first episode, we see her show her swordswoman prowess by easily killing a troll, and yet she's such a poor leader that she's blindsided when her entire group of followers mutinies and refuses to follow her any further. Then the elven kingdom of Gil Galad is so eager to get rid of her that they ship her off to Valinor, and Galadriel doesn't want to go so she jumps overboard at the last minute and spends nearly all her scenes in one episode swimming. After that she's picked up along with a shipwrecked human and taken to Numenor, where she's so bad at making friends an influencing people that she's thrown into jail where she's schooled by her human companion in very basic elements of how to tell what is important to other people and base your actions on that -- and she responds with a "oh really, I never thought of that!"  In her... what?  Five thousand years of life up to that point, she never noticed things like how to tell what's important to the person you're talking to and not kicking metaphorical sand at them?

Pretty much. But even then she can't learn and continues as the world's worst diplomat even down to the present episode.

And then we have an extremely hard-to-believe plot twist introduced in Ep5 where apparently during a fight between an elf warrior and a balrog back in the first age, the perfect balance of good and evil light was captured and infused into Mithril deep in the Misty Mountains, and now the elves are faced with a Mysterious Blight and they'll all be dead by spring unless they get lots of Mithril (which the dwarves have to mine for them) which will replace the light of Valinor for them and allow them to still have their powers because otherwise... things.

I should say, one moderately intriguing and wholly original thing in the series is an elf named Adar, who was clearly badly wounded at some point, and is now somehow in command of a large group of orcs who call him "father". The Orc Father (as I have been calling him) has had minimal screen time and only appeared much in episodes 4 and 5, but he hints at an interesting and conflicted background to an extent that few characters do. 

While the series is coy as to what is going on with the forces of darkness, it appears that in the wreckage of the previous war there are multiple dark leaders who are gradually drawing power to themselves and seeking to create realms in the area that will one day be Mordor, but that no one person is predominant while Sauron himself is not to be seen. It's one of the few seriously intriguing things about the series.

Overambitious and curiously under-executed, the series is frustrating to watch. We'll stick it out, at least through this season, but the writing is the great weakness here, and although a few elements of the long term arc seem interesting, the overall plot and world building simply don't have much of a touch.