On Dragons

In the Dungeons & Dragons adventure The Sunless Citadel, written by Bruce R. Cordell, there is an epigraph heading one of the sections of the module, which goes:

"See the old Dragon from his throne
Sink with enormous ruin down!"

The attribution Cordell provides is merely 'Hymn'. In years past I might have never located the hymn from which these lines were taken, but, thanks to the power of the Internet (I simply typed in, as a quotation, the first line of the epigraph into Google search), I discovered that one source for the hymn is the third volume of the Works of the Rev Phillip Doddridge.

The Rev Doddridge, who wrote the hymn based on the passage from Revelation 12.11 ('But they have conquered him [i.e., the Devil, the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.'). Doddridge's work The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul influenced William Wilberforce to become a Christian (so Wikipedia). Doddridge himself is a somewhat obscure figure. His online presence is largely limited to his Wikipedia article and some online hymn sites.

I am not sure where Cordell discovered these lines of the hymn; I should ask him one of these days.

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

[Ed. This is the text of a sermon I preached at St Albans Church, Ottawa, on Sunday, July 21, 2013. The texts on which my sermon was based were Amos 8.1-12 and Luke 10.38-42.]

So our lectionary occasionally provides us with readings that stop us short, I find. Our first reading, from the prophet Amos, is a pretty good example of this. He writes:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

So we hear that, and then someone says at the end of it all, ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,’ and one is tempted to reply, ‘Sure, if you say so.’


An Unquiet Mind

Many thanks to Sarah for recommending this book!

Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of An Unquiet Mind, is a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, and is a pre-eminent contemporary psychiatrist. Although I am not familiar with her, she is an accomplished psychiatrist - and a sufferer of manic depression - or bipolar disorder. Actually, she herself writes about preferring the term 'manic-depressive illness' to the newer label 'bipolar disorder', but I won't get into detail about that. At least in this marginal commentary, however, I will generally follow Dr Jamison's preference.

An Unquiet Mind may be called Dr Jamison's 'biography of mental illness', for in it she describes coping - for a long time unsuccessfully - with manic depression. In having such a focus, it is a lot more like C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy than it is like the other biographies I've commented upon on The Marginal Virtues, namely; Hitman by Bret Hart, The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

There is something to be said about the use of the term 'bipolar disorder', and that is the word 'disorder' - manic depression is the 'disordered' form of modes of experience and feeling that everyone experiences. I would go so far as to say, although with the caveat that I am no professional, that all of us have 'manic' and 'depressive' moments, but they are neither so severe nor prolonged, in most cases, to be in any way noticeable.

My focus, then, will be on a handful of passages in which Dr Jamison describes her illness, and what, if anything, I think it also describes of common human experience. The edition from which I cite passages was the re-published version (with a new preface by the author) of 2011 by Vintage Books.


The Guns of August

First, my thanks to Deborah for recommending this book!

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, is the first (it probably won't be the last) book on the Great War (the First World War) for which I have written a marginal commentary. Tuchman, incidentally, is surprisingly only the sixth female author about whose work I have written some kind of post. I have written essays on each of J. K. Rowling's books in the Potter septet, and have written marginal commentaries on works by Emma Donoghue, Kate Pullinger, Debbie Macomber, and Jeannette Walls. Once I have finished the marginal commentary on Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind, the ratio of 'boys vs. girls' in terms of authors on whose works I shall have written posts will be twenty-nine to seven, or just over four to one.

The edition of The Guns of August from which I am quoting passages is the edition published in 2012 by the Library of America (the publisher is Literary Classics of the United States); the book was published originally in 1962 by MacMillan. This book also includes The Proud Tower, Tuchman's work on the quarter-century preceding the First World War. Incidentally, Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919 (a great book; MacMillan, by the way, is a Canadian and great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George), is the editor of the Library of America edition of The Guns of August and The Proud Tower. As an editorial note, all italics in passages quoted are original to this edition of The Guns of August; save one or two most consist of quotes from or scraps of other languages.

Tuchman's style reminds me of that of Piers Brendon in The Dark Valley: in fairness I should say that his style is reminiscent of hers. Both The Dark Valley and The Guns of August are written in a novelistic, witty style. And, even though The Guns of August takes a closer look at a shorter period of time than Brendon's work, it is still to an extent panoramic.

My focus with respect to The Guns of August will be on its opening chapters, as to how Tuchman skillfully builds dramatic tension, despite the fact that the results of the deliberations, arguments, diplomatic to-and-fro, and so on, which characterised the opening act of the War, are well known. '[O]n Juy 28 [Austria] declared war on Serbia, on July 29 bombarded Belgrade. [p. 89]' With those acts, the Great War began. But it was not to envelop Western Europe until the beginning of August, when one by one Germany, France, and Great Britain (responding to the German violation of Belgian neutrality) were 'dragged... forward' over 'the brink' by 'the pull of military schedules. [ibid.]' Tuchman might have put it as Brendon did when he wrote, 'One by one... the great powers slid into the fiery chasm of conflict. [The Dark Valley, p. 689]'

It is a credit to Tuchman's craft that she is able to generate dramatic tension about events the course of which are known; actually, this is one of the appeals of well-written works of history, I think. In any case, let's see if we can't perceive some of the means by which Tuchman enables us to enter into the tense, calamitous decisions (and, to coin a word 'indecisions') that provoked the definitive historical event of the twentieth century.



First, my thanks to Graham for recommending Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver!

In the Acknowledgements, Stephenson writes about some of the books which he used as sources for Quicksilver. 'Of particular note', he writes, 'is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill's six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh. [p. x; italics original].' Running over nine hundred pages, Quicksilver is big. (So was Cryptonomicon.) Stephenson, it would appear, is in full agreement with Treebeard the Ent's remark to the effect that anything worth saying is worth taking a long time to say.

My early impression of Quicksilver is that Stephenson appears to be using fiction as a vehicle for celebrating the achievements of the modern: he is, it seems to me and in other words, an apologist, if not an apostle, of modernism. (Some confirmation for this impression can be found in the early goings of Cryptonomicon, in which Stephenson, describing Randy Waterhouse's life with his ex-girlfriend and her academic chums, pillories post-modern thinking and behaviour.)

Another impression of the work, reached much further in (if you'll pardon the double entendre), is that it depicts sex in a fashion more cynical than that which was expressed in Cryptonomicon. Whatever your view of the sexual goings-on of the characters in Cryptonomicon, all but one of their sexual interactions possessed a certain kind of innocence: namely, they were innocent of motives other than the mutual consummation of a relationship, however quirky. (The one exception was Laurence Waterhouse bedding a young woman who was a presumed spy for the Germans, but by the time they got around to getting around, it is a foregone conclusion that he won't be giving up any secrets to her.)

By contrast, several of the notable sexual escapades in Quicksilver signify more than just the consummation of a relationship (although they also do that), and their additional significance is never better than morally compromising, even if the results further the plot and lead to good things, overall, happening.

So, my approach to Quicksilver will focus on two aspects; first, Stephenson's apparent apostolate (as it were) with respect to modernity, and, second, how sex is used to control and corrupt - to put it baldly. Whence the label 'sex' on this post, because I'll be quoting passages in which it is somehow a feature. So, with respect to the latter, you have been warned.


A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

[Ed. This is the text of the sermon which I preached at St Albans Church in Ottawa on Trinity Sunday, 26 May 2013.]

These days it often seems as though the doctrine of the Trinity is an answer to a problem nobody asked. Theologians who rabbit on about the Trinity appear to be like the engineer in the joke about the manager in the hot-air balloon, providing information that may be technically correct, but which help the balloonist not at all.


Consider the bewildering and tongue-twisting formulations of the sixth-century Athanasian Creed, which can be found near the end of the old Book of Common Prayer:


Now the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity; Neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Ghost; But the Godhead of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. (BCP 695)


And on it goes, well past the point at which we might consider uttering an expletive and chucking the book into a dusty corner. The mystery writer and Christian essayist Dorothy Sayers once parodied this kind of language, writing of ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.’


October Selection

In my post for last month's selection, you may recall, I noted that I would be choosing only one book from the back burner for October; well, here it is:

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman.

Congratulations to May for your recommendation having been selected!


John 6.51-58

I was asked to put a recent sermon I preached online. As I have written about sermons before here on The Marginal Virtues, I decided to post it here.

As I generally follow the guidelines for writing sermons set out by Wilson in The Four Pages of the Sermon (about which I wrote a series of posts), you may be able to notice when I change 'pages', although I don't think that this sermon features distinct theme sentences for each 'page'.

The occasion of the sermon was a service of Holy Eucharist in the basement of St Paul's Eastern United Church, in Ottawa, on Sunday, August 19. The parish at which I am presently serving as a pastoral intern, St Albans, has been undergoing renovations for quite some time, and we were not allowed to hold our service there because an inspector from the city determined that we do not have two accessible exits - which is true. St Paul's Eastern graciously hosted us.

The text on which I preached that day was from the gospel of John; namely, John 6.51-58. It is the gospel for the day according to the lectionary - the propers for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.


Gollum's Personal Hell

The Lord of the Rings has many great passages, one of which, early on, concerns Gollum. Gandalf paints a dark portrait of the tormented Halfling (FRI, p. 68):
'All the "great secrets" under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.'
In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Rosebury somewhere writes (in effect) that, when it comes to evil characters, Tolkien is adept at creating 'states of personality, or unpersonality, that no sane reader would envy.' Put another way, Tolkien's devils (so to speak) are actually diabolical. No one would want to be like them, whereas even a greater author than he, Milton, made his Satan a more attractive, if pridefully rebellious, figure than God, although C. S. Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost helps us see through the glamour given Satan by Romantic critics such as William Blake, who famously wrote that Milton was of Satan's party without knowing it. (Rosebury mentions Milton, and gives another example, that of the wicked Count Fosco in The Woman in White, who is genial, wealthy, and amusing, in contrast with the bland and unsympathetic would-be heroes of the work.)
Gollum's motives are not much different than those of Milton's Satan. Pride and greed are the source of his downfall, as they are with Milton's Satan, although he is, of course, an altogether meaner creature. As the chilling description of his life by Gandalf shows, Gollum's lust for uncovering secrets led to the realisation that no such 'great secrets' are there to be found: Gollum forsook joy, and light, and life, and the mystery inherent in community and companionship, for nothing more than 'empty night' and for 'nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.' This has the taste of hellishness to it.

Job 39.25

In The Guns of August, a book for which I am writing a marginal commentary, Barbara Tuchman, in true Biblical style, conflates Job 39.25, ant. loc., in order to describe Winston Churchill, then not quite forty years old and First Lord of the Admiralty. She writes (on p. 111):
When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but "paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha."
This sentence is a dense conflation of bits from Job 39, vv. 21, 22, & 25. As the verbal forms demonstrate, she has in mind, and in part directly quotes, the Authorised (or King James) Version.

This allusion, it should be noted, would not work at all with other English translations: if taken from the text of the NRSV the part written only as a direct quotation would read, 'paws violently and when the trumpet sounds, says, "Aha!" ' If taken from the Revised English Bible, it would read, 'shows his mettle as he paws and prances and at the trumpet-call he cries "Aha!"'; if from the NIV, 'paws fiercely and at the blast of the trumpet snorts, "Aha!"'; if from the Jerusalem Bible, 'paws the soil of the valley and at each trumpet blast shouts "Hurrah!"'.

The which just goes to show that the Authorised Version is certainly the fertile source of much literary allusion and creativity. It also shows that you never know where you're going to find a Biblical allusion.