Saturday, March 28, 2009

From The 1928 "The Book of Knowledge"

Some time ago I got a copy of the 1928 version of "The Book of Knowledge", an educational 20 volume series geared to children. It is a fascinating snapshot not only of the state of knowledge at the time (many entries begin with the phrase "We do not know exactly how..." and then go on to ponder what are now scientific commonplaces; perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that is people willing to acknowledge ignorance) but also what was expected for children to learn at the time, and what it was felt they would be curious about. There are quite detailed examinations of engineering, economy, art, history, and geography that might befit a college course these days. There are numerous colored plates showing a variety of plants, birds, and fish. There are sections on poetry and literature, ranging from stuff for the very young on up to Shakespeare. There are crafts (build a shelf out of wooden orange crates!), games, and first aid lessons. There is quite a bit about Canada and its' Prime Ministers (I think the series was geared for both the U. S. and the Great White North). Most of the illustrations are limited to printing in black, white, and red, and by "photogravures", that is, a photo printed on a metal plate (and a word my spellcheck refuses to recognize), another indication of the technology of the time. But as one can see by the example above, quite striking effects could be achieved.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Question

Went to Target this week-end and found a three-pack from DC Universe: Justice League Unlimited that included The Flash, Wonder Woman and--The Question! I bought it for The Question, as I already have the others (a certain nephew and niece are due for a present each).

From the card: "In an attempt to stop the end of the world, the conspiracy theorist, The Question, tries in vain to take down CADMUS. He is rescued by The Justice League but soon finds himself in the middle of an all out battle with the cloned Ultramen!"

A short bit of history: The Question was created for Charlton comics, then bought by DC in the 80's. The character of Rorschach in Watchmen was Alan Moore's alternate/take on/tribute to the Question: both are trench-coated, fedora'd, "faceless" conspiracy theorists.

I got to know and love The Question in the Justice League Unlimited animated show, where he is voiced by the talented Jeffrey Coombs (of Re-animator fame). I like the idea of a hero whose only powers are thinking, investigation, suspicion, and an unusual face mask. The fact that he is a conspiracy theorist hero and kind of resembles William S. Burroughs in his dress sense also endear him to me.

The figure itself is 5 3/4 inches high, and the sculpt is a perfect echo of the animation style.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Color of Magic

A quick reminder to anyone who needs to know: watch the US premier of The Color Of Magic on Ion tomorrow, March 22. Check your local listings! Looks good, except the guy cast as Rincewind is older than he should be--but we'll see how it turns out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Patrick's Breastplate

(Also known as "The Deer's Cry"; this hymn was said to have been uttered by Patrick when he and his monks were being hunted by minions of King Loeguire in an effort to prevent them from preaching the Gospel at Tara, so that Patrick and his company seemed like fugitive deer. )

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgement of Doom.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of the love of the Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise to-day
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

I summon to-day all these powers between me and all these evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against the spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.

Christ to shield me to-day
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

---tr. by Kuno Meyer, from the 8th Century Irish.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blast From The Past: Awesome Dinosaurs

From the 1969 Sears catalog. These were some of the coolest toys we ever got as kids, things we thought were right out of our league but our parents bought them anyway (hey, in 1969 $2.99 was a significant sum). State of the art remotes on wires and eyes and mouths that lit up. Note the little walky feet for extra stability. When these toys inevitably broke I remember we used the triceratops head as a helmet for other toys and the arm of the tyrannosaur was a "chicken leg" for imaginary feasts. The whirring, ratchety noise these made was unforgettable.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Some Children Played At Slaughtering: An Omitted Grimm's Tale

In a city named Frannecker, located in West Friesland, some young boys and girls between the ages of five and six happened to be playing with one another. They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig. Then they chose one girl to be a cook and another girl her assistant. The assistant was to catch the blood of the pig in a little bowl so they could make sausages. As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

A councilman was walking nearby and saw this wretched act. He immediately took the butcher with him and led him into the house of the mayor, who instantly summoned the entire council. They deliberated about this incident, and they did not know what to do to the boy, for they realized that it had all been part of a children's game. One of the councilmen, an old wise man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand and a Rhenish gulden in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If he took the gulden, he was to be killed. The judge took the wise man's advice, and the boy grabbed the apple with a laugh. Then he was set free without any punishment.

--from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brother Grimm.

This gruesome little tale deals with the concept of the age of accountability; when is a child able to make rational decisions and therefore be held responsible for its actions? This folkloric answer--if it knows the value of a piece of money over the instant gratification of a treat-- is common in several cultures. By this standard there are quite a few kids walking around who would not be here today.

Missing The Mark: An Annoying Equipment Anomaly

"Each of them had held the bow the right way up, each had found the cock feather and set it outwards, each had taken hold of the string to draw the bow--most boys who have not been taught are inclined to catch hold of the nock of the arrow when they draw, between their finger and thumb, but, of course, a proper archer draws back the string with his first two or three fingers and lets the arrow follow it--neither of them had allowed the point to fall away towards the left as they drew, nor struck their forearms with the bow-string, two common faults with people who don't know, and each had loosed evenly without a pluck.
" 'Good,' said Robin. 'No lute-players here.' "
--from The Sword In The Stone, by T. H. White.

There are two equipment anomalies that occur in countless movies where bows and arrows are used, and every time I see them it makes me grit my teeth. I have seen them happen in The Lord of the Rings movies and the Narnia movies. I am not a huge expert in archery, but even I know that:

1) A good archer does not release an arrow with a twang; yet expert, even supernatural archers like Legolas and Susan are shown as constantly doing so. I know movie audiences must often have an audio clue to help them follow the action, and by now are used to this one, but surely the zip of the arrow as it's released is enough?

2) Archers, especially in battle situations, are told to hold their draw. This is plain nonsense. The tension of holding a draw in a strain on both muscles and bow; the longer a draw is held the more the muscle quivers and the less likely one is to make an accurate shot. The strain can also snap the string or even the bow itself. I know it is more dramatic and causes expectation in the movie audience, but it is as ridiculous and annoying as the ten-shot six-shooter to someone who knows even a little bit about archery.

In fact, either of these anomalies remind me of the episode in The Simpsons when the Indians draw back their bows and they make the sounds of gun-cocking. They are both as hilarious, and as accurate. All movies depend on the illusion of reality; but paradoxically a good fantasy relies doubly so on accurate details to suspend your disbelief and engage your emotions, so these anomalies are distracting and detract (a tiny bit) from the experience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frenemy Mine

My brother and I watched the Bill Maher movie Religulous last week, and I found it highly amusing. Bill Maher comes off as charming, good-natured, and his comic timing is impeccable. I completely disagree with most of his viewpoints (his opinion that all religions are fungible, that is, that the little old lady clutching her hymnbook is as responsible for 9/11 as the maddest fatwah-spewing mullah, seems to me to be particularly simplistic) but I enjoyed watching his film in a religious sense more than I like most "religious" TV and films that I've seen. I suppose it is the chance to hone your dialectical skills with someone over the Big Questions (does God exist, and if so, what do we owe him?) as opposed to quibbling over minutia (our right to wear our hair wet to church on Sundays) that engages my attention. In other words, Maher knows it is a Big Question, and that puts him in a category apart from many "atheists" and "agnostics" who simply assume their position without much thought so they can do as they like, just as many "religious" people assume their position to go with the flow and never make an ethical decision based on their belief from Sunday to Sunday. The fact that Maher is on the opposite side from me on the Big Question puts us in a weirdly personal relation on an intellectual plane.

It was pondering this paradoxical position that led me to identify for myself a motif common in movies and TV shows. I call it the "We Are Much Alike" moment. There comes a point in the conflict between Hero and Villain when the Villain pauses and asks, "Why are we fighting, you and I? We are more alike than those common slobs that you're defending. Join me, and we'll rule the world!"

This usually happens at a point where the Villain has had a taste of what a formidable opponent the Hero can be. Now he may just be stalling for time to gather his strength and wits for a new attack, but he may be seriously trying to co-opt the Hero to his side. And if that is the case, I believe he tries it not only for the power he could gain, but for two deeper psychological reasons.

The Villain wants, as the Judge says of Moriarty in They Might Be Giants, "a different kind of victory." I think first of all he wants to confirm to himself that his decisions were correct, that anyone as smart or powerful as he is would make the same choices he has, if they only had it explained correctly to them. And second I think the Villain wants company; his position makes him isolated and he wants someone (if only as a junior partner) to confide in and understand him.

Now a Hero faced with this choice can have three reactions. The first is straight from the heart and amounts to crying "Never!" and attacking. The second is saying "I know we're a lot alike, and that's why I have to kill you," and attacking. And the third (and I think most evolved) is saying, "I know we are, and that's why you should join me." This almost never works, but at least the Hero knows he's tried as he attacks.

There is, of course, the dread fourth reaction, in which the Hero does join the Villain. This does not turn out well. It happens to Anakin Skywalker, and he is bilked out of Palpatine's promises and placed under a more abject relationship to the Emperor than he ever was in to any Jedi Master. It happens in a rather ambiguous manner to Clarice Starling, depending on your point of view; whether Hannibal Lector released her from societal conditioning that held her back or brainwashed her to be his own perfect mate is a moot point.

The "We Are Much Alike" moment happens in lot of movies and TV shows, as I've said. It happens between Gandalf and Saruman, and it is a constant concern of Frodo and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The differentiation between himself and his foes is always on Batman's mind in all his incarnations. It is the conflict that drives the entire first series of Trigun, where Knives is constantly trying to force Vash into his nihilistic, egocentric point of view. In the Dragonball series, Goku goes through it with all his antagonists, and has a pretty good track record of converting them to his benevolent point of view.

This may all sound to some people like simplistic morality play stuff, but it is not. What it is saying is that good and evil are absolute, but people are not, or need not be; that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. And that is an encouraging and dynamic thought.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Blast And Botheration

I finally passed that post that's been clogging me for a week now, and it's down further below, published on the date I started it. So look down; it's called "Frenemy Mine".

UPDATE! Thanks to AlanDP for pointing out how I could fix this. The post is now in it's proper place.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Tailor In Heaven: A Lesser Known Grimm's Tale

One fine day it happened that the good Lord decided to go for a walk in the heavenly garden. He took all the apostles and saints with him, and nobody was left in heaven except Saint Peter. The Lord ordered him not to let a soul enter during his absence. So Saint Peter stood at the gate and kept watch. Soon someone knocked, and Saint Peter asked who was there and what he wanted.
"I'm a poor honest tailor," a slick voice answered, "and I'd like to come in."
"Sure, you're honest!" said Saint Peter. "About as honest as a thief on the gallows. Your light fingers have stolen many pieces of cloth from people, and I'm certainly not going to let you enter heaven. The Lord has forbidden me to let anyone enter while he's out."
"Have mercy," the tailor cried out. "They were just scraps of cloth that fell from the table by themselves. They weren't stolen, and they're not even worth talking about. Look, I'm limping. I've got blisters all over my feet from walking here, and I can't possibly turn back. Let me in, and I'll do all the dirty work. I'll carry the babies, wash their diapers, clean the benches they play on, and mend their tattered clothes."
Saint Peter let himself be moved by pity and opened heaven's gate just wide enough for the lame tailor to slip his lean body through. He was ordered to sit down in a corner behind the door and to keep absolutely still so the Lord would not notice him upon his return and get angry. The tailor obeyed, but once when Saint Peter stepped out the door, the tailor got up, full of curiosity, and explored all the nooks and crannies of heaven, inspecting everything he saw.
Finally, he came to a place where there were many beautiful and exquisite chairs, and in the middle was an armchair made of solid gold and studded with glistening jewels. It was much taller than the other chairs, and a golden footstool stood in front of it. This was the Lord's armchair, and he sat in it when he was at home. It was from this seat that he could see everything that happened on earth. The tailor stood still and looked at the armchair for a good long time, for it appealed to him more than anything else he had seen. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him, and he climbed up and sat down on the chair. Then he could see everything that was happening on earth, and he noticed an ugly woman washing some clothes at a brook. When she secretly put two veils aside, the tailor became so furious at the sight that he grabbed the golden footstool and hurled it down from heaven at the old thief on earth. Upon realizing that he could not retrieve the footstool, the tailor slipped quietly out of the armchair, took his place behind the door again, and pretended he had not been stirring up trouble.
When the Lord and Master returned with his heavenly retinue, he did not notice the tailor behind the door. But when he sat down in his armchair, he did indeed remark that his footstool was missing. He asked Saint Peter what had happened to it, but Saint Peter did not know. Then the Lord asked him whether he had let anyone in.
"I don't know of anyone who's been here," Saint Peter replied, "except a lame tailor who's still sitting behind the door."
Then the Lord had the tailor appear before him and asked him whether he had taken his footstool and what he had done with it.
"Oh, Lord," the tailor answered joyfully. "I threw it in anger at an old woman on earth because she was stealing two veils while washing clothes."
"How ridiculous you are!" exclaimed the Lord. "If I were to judge as you do, what do you think would have happened to you by now? I would no longer have any chairs, benches, armchairs, or even fire tongs, because I'd have thrown them all at sinners. It's clear that you can't stay here any longer. I want you to leave through heaven's gate. Then you may go wherever you will. Nobody shall dole out punishment but me, the Lord your God."
Saint Peter had to lead the tailor through heaven's gate, and since the tailor's shoes were torn and his feet were covered with blisters, the tailor took a stick in his hand for a cane and walked to Waitawhile, where the good soldiers sit and make merry.
--from The Complete Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes.
1. The tailor is accused of stealing cloth; in folklore many trades have their traditional manners of thieving: thus millers give back short weight for what they grind, cooks keep the best food for themselves, and butlers the best wine.
2. The Lord's armchair: in Norse mythology the Seat of Odin has similar properties. When the wrong person (Frey) sits in it, what he sees sets off a chain of events that leads to great misfortune for the gods.
3. Waitawhile: also called (in another translation) the Waitabit Inn. A conventional place to leave rascally protagonists in congenial surroundings; if not happily ever after, at least in jovial circumstances.
4. The woodcut illustration is by Albrecht Durer of the Ancient of Days seated among the seven candlesticks of the churches, being adored by St. John.