Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Sword in the Stone (Review)


T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone,” is the first book (meaning, section) of his novel The Once and Future King. This is White’s epic re-telling of the King Arthur legend. Since I have only finished the first book (see the Let’s Read which covers the first book—ch.1-24), I cannot comment on the novel as a whole, which encompasses three other books, but I can comment on the story so far.

                “The Sword in the Stone” covers the future King Arthur’s pre-adolescent and early teen years. We learn that Arthur, called Wart, was taken in by a kindly lord called Sir Ector as he was abandoned on his steep as a baby. He and the lord’s actual born son, Kay, become friends; Kay is pushy and emotionally uneducated, prone to temper tantrums. Wart, meanwhile, is a self-proclaimed hero-worshipper who is a bit sensitive and prone to fits of crying. But, that is the point, as we will see.

                Turns out that Sir Ector is in the market for a tutor for the boys—to give them a proper education, as you know. A few chapters into the book and that tutor is found; why, it is none other than Merlyn himself! Wart finds him while wandering in the forest after a stubborn bird named Cully.

                Skipping some irrelevant details, Merlyn takes up teaching the two boys a variety of subjects, but it is Wart’s special education which concerns the bulk of the story—while Kay is content to learn the subjects of concern for his upbringing as a knight, Wart is transformed into a variety of animals, each one imparting a different life-skill or mastery.

                As I commented in my Let’s Read, I thought this was a risky move on White’s part since until the final two or three chapters, there is not really much of a story—it is, literally, just Wart being transmogrified into various creatures and having small adventures as he and Kay grow up, learn, and prepare for their futures. Honestly, the “Sword in the Stone” is better described not so much as a ‘book,’ as in something which has a cohesive and singular plot thread, but rather as a collection of intertwined short stories.

                Amazingly enough, however, this form of writing pays off and by the end of the book, the magnitude of Wart’s adventures, those written and unwritten, take on an epic quality.

                When Wart takes grasp of the titular sword in the stone, hundreds of animal friends from his adventures fill the town square cheering him on and reminding him of his trials and tribulations. What is so neat and empowering about is, is that we only see Wart become transformed in the first book five or six times, so the fact that the square is filled with hundreds of animals, makes one hair stand on edge; even more so when one realizes that because Wart is ignorant of the magnitude of event which is transpiring before his eyes, believing this sudden outpouring of support to be simply spontaneous. The congregation of animals takes on not a high-pressure scenario but one of a friendly, no-pressure encouragement. Something, in other words, which would have been a hearty and much needed event for our young protagonist, seeing as how he had lost his best friend and was all alone in the world.

                Why this is so inspiring is because it is a part of the text to be taken in conjunction with everything which led up to it. That all of Wart’s training was not so much pointless or needless, as it was secretly preparing him for the task of freeing this sword—something which he does in the context of the story not for himself, to become king, since he is ignorant of its importance, but to instead find a sword for Kay who is to participate in a jousting tournament.

                Taken alongside Wart’s selfless and caring disposition, we understand that White has propped up the idea of ‘The Fair Unknown’ by subverting its usual elements; instead of giving us a protagonist who is macho, full of himself, and eager to prove his mettle against the evils of the world (i.e., someone like Kay), White throws the ball to the other end of the spectrum and gives us the exact opposite—someone who does not want to be a king or leader of nations, someone who is kind and caring while remaining humble enough to be afraid of leadership.

                I mused in my Let’s Read that since this book was published in 1939 and likely written earlier, then that this subversion would have been a unique phenomenon. I would not be surprised if a great number of writers ripped off White’s idea of a youth full of fundamental goodness accidentally stumbling on to his destiny (right, J.K Rowling?). Though it is obvious that many did, I would be curious to do a more thorough bit of research where I see if White’s take as common or highly uncommon.

                Considering the actual construction of the narrative—White’s authorial style, the atmosphere connoted by the book, and the pacing—everything comes together extremely well.

                All though the characters themselves are nothing to write home about, they feel believable as people. Wart and Merlyn especially are written with a happy yet melancholic flair which should be a case study in sub-text. Many authors would stumble when it comes to writing an angst-ridden, yet fundamentally joyful, adolescent (right, J.K Rowling?), but White manages to write Wart as simultaneously rambunctious and moody; his downer attitude modulated by Merlyn’s whimsical knowledge and mode of interaction with the world. Over all, the book emotes a feeling of the cartoonish; this is not to say that the story is childishly immature (though it is clearly a children’s story), but that it is heavily pushing the animated Disney feel before a time when Disney was the unstoppable corporate juggernaut which we know of it today.

                The chapters by whereupon Wart is turned into various animals are odd, but they are the best parts of the book. Filled with anachronistically charged references and political musings which deserve a steady hand to unpack (in order to see what sort of autobiographical relation they have to White), each transformation imparts a different moral and virtue, while the world building associated with each encounter is a smart, grin-encouraging affair as White builds an elaborate animalistic parody of human social system.

                There is a lot of other aspects to discuss, from White’s continued reference to mental illnesses to an exploration of depression and childhood romaticization, but I feel those topics are better left to either separate critical essays or as a longer theoretical exploration of the novel as a whole (meaning, all four books of The Once and Future King). As it stands, “The Sword in the Stone” is a lovely re-telling of Arthur’s childhood which makes the character easy for young boys to sympathize with while identifying with his struggles growing up. The text is not perfect, since it suggests some less then savvy politicking, but as an initial impression, White’s rendition performed ably.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Augustine on Authority, Reason, and Truth (Notes:48)

Are faith and philosophy compatible ways of seeking the truth? Augustine, surprisingly, will answer that they are compatible, that though they appear starkly different at first glance, they are not so different after all. Augustine’s augment for why each is compatible with one another centers on how we come to know Truth and the purpose of Truth.

Around the time of his ordination to the priesthood in 391, Augustine wrote On True Religion. It is an interesting text because though nowadays we think of church doctrine and hierarchal organization as normal, back in Augustine’s day it was still thought of in terms of cult-activity. The idea of a ‘true religion’ which has certain forms of conduct and the like, was alien to many in Augustine’s day; religion was something you did, not something you believed.

To Augustine, correct worship and correct belief are inseparable. He criticizes pagan philosophers who were willing to participate in religious rituals which were at odds with their religious beliefs. Worship and teaching, in other words, must be consistent and this marks a theological turning point.
Today, many see reason and faith as opposed to one another. One utilizes facts within the observable world as defined by a relatively stable empirical data and scientific process, while the other uses blind fanaticism, belief without evidence. But Augustine does not take such a dichotomy.

Augustine sees both faith and reason demanding our cognitive and affective sides (desires, wills, and commitments). Another reason why Augustine rejects this delineation between faith and Truth, is because the delineation does not ask what value there is in seeking the truth. People who value knowledge for its own sake, according to Augustine, is making a fundamental moral mistake. Until we know what knowledge is for we cannot evaluate what faith or reason or both might serve that aim.
This standard way—of forcing a delineation—assumes that there is a standard way of apprehending the Truth. If this was true, then an upholding of faith would require a repudiation of the wholly rational path (assuming that a purely rational approach to the Truth was even possible). To Augustine, any search for Truth, must begin with the acceptance of authority.

Faith, or belief, comes from hearing. Knowledge, meanwhile, comes by sight. Knowledge depends on first-hand experience while belief comes from accepting something from second-hand—believing what we have heard, testimony which appears to be reliable and definitive. Needless to say, much of what we would call knowledge Augustine would not consider as such: if I travel to Paris France and spend several weeks inebriated while seeing the sights and praying that I do not get caught up in a terrorist attack, then that is knowledge, because I have seen it—and my hangover— first hand; however, if I have heard of a place from friends called Paris, Utah then that is faith because I have not been there first-hand, I only of an idea of its alleged existence because I have taken several trusted sources as my guide in determining if such a place exists.

One such explicit result of Augustine’s philosophy is that no one can teach anyone anything by means of language.

Why?

Williams teaches it like this: if I teach you something, then I cause you to know it. But in order to cause you to know something, I have to show you the thing that you are to know. But words cannot show anything, they can only point you toward something. If I wanted to teach you that there is a place called Oxford England, I could not teach you by telling you about it since even if you believed me, you wouldn’t know it you would simply believe me. In order to teach in to cause you to know it, I would have to take you there, but if that was the case, then it wouldn’t be my words to teach you, but rather, your own sight.

As we learned previously, there are two different things that we can know—sensible things and intelligible things, in keeping with our Platonic distinctions. It is easy to demonstrate that sensible things cannot be shown by means of language, as the example vis-a-vie Oxford demonstrated. However, it also turns out that we cannot teach intelligible things by means of language.

For Augustine, intelligible things exist in our own minds. Justice, for example, is one such intelligible thing; in order to know justice, you must have first-hand experience of justice itself. Now, justice exists in the mind—our minds have access to it, it is an intelligible thing. But how can one show another something that only exists in their mind? I cannot know your own mind—I cannot use words to demonstrate the existence of an intelligible thing since they only exist in our minds; words can only be used to focus on ideas and ideals, not manifest something into reality in the same way which I can prove the existence of Paris, France by taking you there. The first-hand experience which constitutes knowledge is not something that I can give you.

How then do we come to know intelligible things? Augustine’s account of this is called the ‘theory of illumination’. This theory presents knowledge as an analog to vision. In order for physical vision to take place we need the power of vision itself, the presence of a physical object, light, and finally, the proper direction of our eyes, we must look in the general direction of the object which we wish to see. ‘Intellectual Vision’ is analogous on all four points: we need intellectual vision—the mind itself—we need also the presence of the intelligible object (that of Truth or Justice or whatever), we need something which corresponds to light in the physical realm, and finally, we need the proper direction not of our eyes, but of our wills.

The power of intellectual vision is always present. All human beings have that power since it is the power of reason. This is always a given. But the power of the intelligible object is also always a given; Justice, beauty, Goodness (etc.) are not like sensible objects which come and go. Intelligible objects are permanent and relatively unchanging. Thirdly, the intelligible light is always present as well: Augustine describes this intellectual light as the second person of The Trinity—that true light who enlightens every human being via God the word. All of this means that the only requirement for intellectual vision which is not always met is the proper direction of our wills. Consequently, a failure of intellectual vision is, in some ways, always traceable to a failure of will. Failure of will, remember, is what Augustine would call Sin.

To back-up a bit, there were some issues of delineation in defining the search for Truth between reason and faith. One side was the cognitive side whereas for Augustine, the affective side plays a major role; why? Because it is the state of our wills which ultimately determine the state of our intellects. Secondly, in our delineation, we see that the problem of seeking the truth is ignored: what is the value of seeking Truth (Belief)? Augustine answers in book five of the Confessions where he speaks of the Truths discovered by the natural sciences: a person who understands the natural world is not any better off—happier—than something who is purely content with God, since that person who understands the natural world but lacks God, lacks that fundamental spark which led to the creation of the natural world (the argument is more complicated than this, but this is, more or less, the gist of it). Same approach for philosophy, as far as Augustine is concerned, especially when applied to Biblical interpretation since such words are only non-sinful when the interpretation creates greater love for God, hence, Biblical interpretation for its own right, is sinful since it does not produce a great love for God. All of this is underwritten by divine assurance: it does not matter where the soul comes from, as long as you have divine assurance (Augustine relates it to a journey where even if you do not know where you left from, as long as you know where you are going, then all is well).

As such, we see in Augustine’s philosophy a radical devaluation of the kind of knowledge which posits knowledge for its own sake; one Good as such transcendence value that it must overwhelm all other Goods (i.e., God). The purpose here is transformation rather than information. In principal, seeking the Truth based on reason is any better for the purpose of transformation than seeking it based on the acceptance of authority. So faith, which relies on authority, does not need to take a back-seat to reason; the humility necessary to accede to authority is in itself a precondition for transformation. Accepting authority is an admitting that we cannot do it all by ourselves, so that sort of humility in the face of a Truth which exceeds out power of comprehension is part of what is necessary in order to have a will that is properly directed at the Truth. Such humility and acceptance of authority, therefore, is not merely an optional extra, but rather, a pervasive feature of any human being seeking transformation; this is something which holds true for anything which we wish to know (to take an example of my own creation, also one at the other end of the spectrum: if one wishes to know the capitalist mode of production, then one must take on Karl Marx’s authority, the basic premises of Marxism in order to begin a rigorous study of said mode of production).


This brings us to the third reason why the dichotomy between faith and reason does not do justice to Augustine’s views—the usual method that of positing the purely rational life as the one way of obtaining Truth, then that would mean that faith comes in, at best, as a supplement to the rational life. To Augustine, this understanding, that which posits that you either know everything or know nothing, is a symptom of Pride (the root of all other Sin). A successful search for Truth will, at some point, rely on authority; this is true because we must always rely on other peoples’ testimony even to maneuver in the world for mundane matters (communication, family lineage, travel, etc.).

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.24)


At long last—the final chapter in the “Sword in the Stone” book. This is also a short chapter at just two and a half pages. It concerns the trappings of Wart becoming King.

It, of course, stirred a fuss, but after a bit of rabble rousing, things settled to normal.

They [the people of England] were sick of the anarchy which had been their portion under Uther Pendragon: sick of overlords and feudal faints, of knights who did what they pleased, of racial discrimination, and the rule of Might as Right” (207).

Goodness! Change a few things around and you have the contemporary U.S!

So everyone sends Wart grand presents and the best that they can afford to buy or make. Merlyn, of course, makes a surprise visit and fills him in on his history—of his father being Uther Pendragon, of Merlyn being the one who left Wart as a baby on Sir Ector’s castle, and Wart’s general history. It kinda makes your hair stands on ends.

’Will you stay with me for a long time?’ asked the Wart, not understanding much of this.
‘Yes, Wart,’ said Merlyn. ‘Or rather, as I should say (or have I said?), Yes, King Arthur’” (209).

The end.

Well, what are my thoughts on this? As a conclusion, I thought it was pretty great; really more epic then I imagined that it would be considering how a lot of the story went, but now that I see how it ends, I feel that the set-up was a bit daring but otherwise worth the narrative risk.
I am going to do a review of this portion of The Once and Future King, so I don’t want to wax eloquently at the moment. But I do wish to thank everyone who read these Let’s Reads and stuck it out with me. But, do not worry, White’s novel still has a whopping three books left in it before its final conclusion, so you and I, dear reader, will be on this journey for a while more; so, that being said, I do want to say that I will not be going on to the next book—“The Queen of Air and Darkness”—for quite a while. In fact, I am going to be soon starting a Let’s Read of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Since White’s novel is a sizable fantasy brick, and I have numerous other texts to do Let’s Reads for, I thought that it would be a nice breath of fresh air if in-between the various sections (books) of White’s novel, I did a Let’s Read of a different Arthurian text; that way we do not get redundant by just reading the one and only text from now until when the sheep come home.

But, that being said, join me again net time for a wondrously sarcastic let’s read!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

I’ve Got Ninety-Nine Problems of player immersion and authorial intent (Enchanted Assemblages)

This is what I am reduced to in order to keep my spirits up.

Part of my struggle in being a post-Structualist is that I must accept as legitimate all interpretations which forego textual literalism (with the exception of interpretations which spring from incorrect ideas). It can be a pain. But it is a reality that I have accustomed myself.

                But, how does this exactly translate into my adaptation? Good question.

                Authorial intent is the devil in the details. It is when a writer—more accurately, an author of a text—declares that [so and so] means [so and so]. It is J.K Rowling declaring that Dumbledore is homosexual without anything from the text backing it up; in other words, it is a holy script—something the timid use to try and excuse their inability to depict what they mean, something which legitimates an idea which exists outside of the text.

                In contemporary times, J.K Rowling is notorious for her attempts to try and use authorial intent to justify opinions which do not exist in the text. Moreover, however, she uses her own characters as a means to that end. In some spin-offs, for example, she uses the construct of ‘Dumbledore’s Notes’ in order to provide a stand-in for her own commentary on what the story means. Though this behavior is obnoxious in the extreme, I will spare you why it is obnoxious, suffice it to say that Rowling apparently has never encountered the ‘death of the author’ before and why we, as readers and interpreters, cannot take the author at their word; to fully explain this would take a longer piece this than this post, and quite frankly it is outside of the purview of this blog.

                It is enough to say though that I reject authorial intent wholesale.

                ‘How can you reject it, though?’ I hear you say, when I myself am an author of one such text (Enchanted Assemblages). Well, this is the problem of the adaptation; not really a problem, though. Closer to a clarification. You see, I have two different kinds of Nodes on my adaptation—the hermeneutic body, for those of you keeping up—and one of those adaptations feature the titular character of the Green Knight. In this Node—‘Deconstruction’—Mr. Green has already passed by the area and interpreted it; it is up to the player to deconstruct it and offer their own interpretation to what Greeny got right and wrong (in the player’s eyes).

                In other words, the interpretation provided by the Green Knight is not holy script. It is not my holy script or attempt to dictate to the player what the ‘correct’ interpretation is; meaning, I am not roleplaying Rowling by slyly inserting what a certain Node means while giving the player only the lip-service to submit a lesser interpretation. Nope! I reject that all!

                I liked brainstorming this aspect since it made the game more ‘meta’ and more tightly wove the idea of the hermeneutic circle into the adaptation itself. Now, the player has full control over the game world in that even those aspects which have already been interpreted, can be re-interpreted; the sedimentation of interpretations intensifies and truly creates a history as players continue to interact with the Node and each other.

                Moreover, I am happy that I brainstormed this since it not only would have gone against my own philosophy to proscribe what a ‘proper’ interpretation consists of, but it would have hamstrung the player by forcing their efforts onto a narrow road. Now the player has freedom, they can keep their fidelity without being constrained by authorial intent, and I can feel relieved in that I have avoided becoming Rowling, if for only another day!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Medieval News: 10 New Youtube Videos for Medieval Lovers - Volume...

(Don't normally share from other sites, but I had to with this one; enjoy!)

Medieval News: 10 New Youtube Videos for Medieval Lovers - Volume...: We found 10 more new videos on Youtube about the Middle Ages. Rediscovered: Medieval Books at Birkbeck  This video introduces University...