My soul gives glory to the Lord; my spirit delights in God who saves me,
For he has chosen to honour me despite my insignificance.
Look, look! For now, all people shall for ever call me blessed!
He, the all powerful, has lent me glory, and HOLY is his Name.
His mercy is with them that adore him, throughout all ages of history.
He is showing strength and power,
He brings the desire of those who boast of themselves to nothing at all.
He has overturned presidents and prime ministers,
Exulting the underprivileged to power and wealth.
He is filling those in need with all they could want,
While those stuffed full of luxury are turned away with nothing.
He remembering his kindness has come to help his servant Israel,
As he promised to our ancestors from time immemorial,
Promised to Abraham’s family for ever and ever.
P.S. An academic note: I have called this “Magnificat”, and in a sense it is, but I know almost no Greek, so ultimately it is my own linguistic impression of the English versions (all however many ><) that I know, and my interpretation of the poetry, not an actual translation. There is no avoiding, for instance, choosing between “he has exulted me because I was humble,” “he has exulted me because of my low social status,” and “he has exulted me despite my low social status”, and I’ve had to do that without any reference to the original language, according to what I think is most coherent with the poem as a whole and with my opinion on the theology of poverty. It is a devotional poem rather than a scriptural translation.
Also, I partly wrote this as an exercise in exploring the problems with trying to put liturgy in truly modern language, being annoyed by the notion it was worth swapping the beautiful prayer book Magnificat for a version which referred to the “lowly” apparently on the grounds that the second version was more “modern” (I’m not sure I’ve ever referred to the “lowly” in any serious way – it is just as dated, if not more so, than “humble and meek”). I’m also intrigued by the problems the limitations of word choice that would be caused by being truly idiomatic create when writing to be read aloud (stylistically, it should really be “on them who” not “on them that“, but the “e-o-or-i” sequence there sounds excruciating; similarly, “unimportance” would have been more idiomatic than “insignificance”, but it has a clumsy rhythm, and poor, clumsy, bad-sounding language doesn’t communicate the beauty and majesty of God). Another problem that intrigues me is that society has changed in ways that mean there simply isn’t a modern equivalent to some things – it isn’t possible to communicate the relationship between master and servant by talking of an employee – and I think this is even more problematic when it comes to theological concepts like “blessed”, “holy”, and “mercy”. Besides, trying to make it sound like an excited teenager talking for the first time about something utterly momentous to her in the confused context of greeting a relative whom she hasn’t seen for some time and who has also had her life turned upside down is quite complicated in terms of choice of technique.
Anyway, it was very interesting, and I have a bit more sympathy now with the people who have to write liturgy and make compromises between all the different considerations.
On the difficulties of reducing all claims to property to “greater need”.
Bob Crouch shivered nervously as he waited for his boss. Ebenezer crashed in and slammed the door, tearing a hole in his ancient suit.
“Bother,” he said. Then he looked at Bob. “What is it? I’ve only got half an hour – then I need to go and join the trustees of the fisherman’s fund.”
Bob swallowed. “I’ve been with you now for twelve years,” he said.
“And very good work you do too,” said Ebenezer, who valued Bob, and never hesitated to praise him.
“And I feel that it is fair I ask you to increase my wages, which have not been increased in that time. I have a large family, as you know, and my son Tom is disabled.”
“Oh, come on, Bob,” Ebenezer said. “If I raise your wages, I’ll have to decrease the donation to the East African Famine Fund. At least your family are in no danger of starving. Their children have a greater need than yours.”
Bob had known he would probably get an answer of this type. He felt momentarily ashamed of himself, wondering what right he had to money that was preventing others starving. Then he wondered if Ebenezer thought he should give the money he, Bob, spent on food for his children to charity, until his children were in a greater state of malnutrition than any other children in the world. Probably not. Ebenezer did eat enough, if not a crumb more – and he never expected anything of others he didn’t do himself. Remembering his son’s unhappiness, his daughter’s probable illness, and his wife’s worried face, he pressed on.
“Yes, but that isn’t the point…” he began.
At that moment there was a knock on the door. “Oh bother,” said Ebenezer. “It’s the soldiers’ orphans’ missionary charity rep. I must see what he wants.”
Bob sighed, and went to his work. He’d known he was probably wasting his time. Even huddled in his coat, he felt cold. The allowance of coal was minimal. Ebenezer didn’t seem to suffer much from it, rushing about as he did, but Bob did. He was glad when it was time to go home. Not that home was much warmer.
His wife Martha met him at the door. All his children were in the tiny living room clustered around Tom, talking eagerly to him of their day at school. Martha could teach him herself, but never had there been a child less well suited to being taught at home rather than going to school. His half-wistful, half-angry eyes followed their neighbours’ daughter, born without legs, being whirled home from school in her wheelchair by a laughing crowd of brothers and friends. Bob had applied to the same charity for one for Tom, but Ebenezer being the chair of trustees, he had been told that as Tom could walk a few steps, they must save their grants for those who could not walk at all, who thereby had a greater need. Had Bob been earning a fair wage for his work, he could easily have purchased a wheelchair for his son himself, but as things stood, they could pay for little but food and shelter and essential clothing, and as Tom could not walk the mile to school and back, he could not go.
The children were cheerful enough most of the time with their rag dolls and hand-me-down clothes, but he knew his youngest daughter had wept all the last night at not being able to go to her friend’s birthday party for want of a gift and a dress. She was thin and pale, and coughed frequently. Bob and Martha both feared she was becoming seriously ill. Ebenezer would undoubtedly pay thousands for her to be treated, but probably not until it was too late.
“Did you get anywhere?” Martha asked him anxiously?
Bob shook his head, his worried eyes passing over his children.
“Oh, it isn’t fair,” she said passionately, “I wish you could find work other than for that old miser.”
“Oh come,” said Bob, who had a fair amount of affection and respect for his employer, “you know he means what he says. He probably lives on a poorer diet than us. And all to give the money to people who are in need.”
“If he wants to live like that himself,” said Martha, “then I respect, yes, admire it immensely. But he has no business imposing it on our children by refusing to pay you what you earn. That money isn’t his to give to other people.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do except plod on,” said Bob. “There’s no-one else to work for here, and…”
There was a knock on the door, and one of the neighbours’ children poked their head around.
“Letter for you, Mr. Crouch. Got left with us by mistake this morning.”
Bob looked at the letter and slowly broke the seal. Martha looked up to see his face transformed.
“This is from an old schoolfriend of mine. He’s inherited an estate – not sure I quite get who from – and wants a manager, and he says the job’s mine if I want it. Twice the salary I’m earning now, and a cottage provided.”
“Oh wonderful,” cried all the children together.
“Yes,” said Bob, half to himself, as he tried to realise that their current problems, at least, were over. “I’ll never hear the words ‘greater need’ again.”
Some ramblings about C. S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”
(N.B. Probably contains spoilers)
I have just finished reading – again – C. S. Lewis’s book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” – the fifth Narnia Chronicle, if one takes them in the story world’s chronology rather than in the order in which they were written.
I’m never really quite sure what I think of it. There is something in all the Narnia Chronicles which leads me to read and reread them over and over. But when I initially read this particular one, I didn’t really think much of it – I felt it had no plot.
I’ve revised that particular opinion since: the plot can be readily summarised, but the nature of the quest involved (seeking seven different people who turn out to be in five different places) is sufficiently diffuse that, taken with the presence of the moral underpinnings (rarely obtrusive but always important), the adventures sometimes seem to have no relation whatever to each other, but that they happen on the same journey and during the same task. However, they are nicely varied and mostly wonderful fun – I don’t think I’ve ever got bored in the process of reading it due to feeling it was repetitive – and the nature of the voyage itself, where to fulfil the quest they have to go “towards Aslan’s country behind the sunrise”, has a considerable significance in the world’s set up, which I think holds things together more than I initially realised.
While I entirely enter into the way Edmund is set up as rather nasty at the beginning of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, I have mixed feelings about Eustace as he is described by the author at the beginning of this book. Granted, the subculture Eustace is described as coming from is not one I’m familiar with, and I have no way of considering whether or not I’d agree with its criticism. And certainly Eustace does plenty of things he shouldn’t. However, I have a certain amount of automatic empathy with him because I was also a child who was much criticised for preferring books of information to stories – I didn’t enjoy stories much until I was nine or ten! There isn’t an obvious logical reason to assume the bad character of a child because they prefer information to imagination and artistry at a particular stage of their development. However, in Eustace’s case it seems reasonably likely to be shorthand for something else that is going on, which I don’t recognise.
I also think Eustace gets unfairly treated in certain places. For example: “Eustace was crying harder than any boy of his age has a right to cry when nothing worse has happened to him than a wetting.” Laying aside changes in gender expectations, it just isn’t an accurate description of events. Eustace was standing in the guest bedroom of his parents’ house, when a picture began to behave oddly, and then fairly suddenly he found himself washed into the middle of a sea. I don’t think describing that as though he had merely tripped over and fallen into a fountain while on a walk in the local park makes sense.
Interestingly, later in the book, after he starts improving, more allowance is given to the fact he hasn’t any experience of “adventures”. As Eustace improves fairly early on in the book, feeling the early criticisms of him are a bit heavy-handed doesn’t affect enjoyment of that much of the story.
I also feel that a better reason for them sailing into the unknown “darkness” could have been found than the fact that Reepicheep had never heard the proverb “The better part of valour is discretion”! I love the Quixotic mouse – who, ironically, is right often enough despite his recklessness – but I still feel the plot limps slightly here, in that the motivation for risking lives in the way (King) Caspian does isn’t adequate. The other characters don’t usually have the same “death-and-glory” mind-set as Reepicheep, and usually check his excesses rather than joining in with them. Again, it seems rather arbitrary that the enchantment of the three Lords should be broken at the end by one member of the company continuing on into Aslan’s country; there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two things. Though these things don’t matter very much, I’m sure they contributed to my initial impression that the book lacked a plot, and I think it would be raised from good to excellent, by more coherence in these places, particularly in the second (given the significance of Aslan in the world’s set up). This may be a matter of purely personal taste: where coherence and consistency matter and where they don’t in fiction is hardly a straightforward issue.
Though I haven’t done a “how-does-the-author-use-language-to-create-this-effect” analysis on the prose style of each section, one of the things that struck me on this last reading was the extent to which C. S. Lewis creates different atmospheres through the book – the tension and fear of the dark island and the sea serpent, the apparent normality of the island of the voice, the dreamy calmness of the last sea at the end of the world, the almost oppressive wildness of some of the uninhabited islands. It is extremely well written from the technical point of view.
There is a lot of morality, spirituality, and metaphysics in the book overall, something I always enjoy, but if – like “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – it is intended to be built around an analogy of some type, rather than being a series of adventures which make moral and spiritual points, I haven’t spotted it yet (or read an introduction/commentary which points it out).
Perhaps part of the reason I never really determine what I think of it is that while it is in itself an excellent book, I miss in it overall the raw power and mythological depth of some of the other books in the series (particularly “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and “The Last Battle”). It is an enjoyable read, with a lot of depth and thoughtfulness, but it isn’t really the same type of book.
*Primary school: ages four to eleven in the English school system.
Three young children were playing with a ball and tennis racquets in their front garden, when a man they did not know came up to them and spoke to them over the fence.
After talking about their interest in learning to play tennis properly, the man suggested he should take them to the local park where they could play on the tennis court and he could teach them some skills. They were delighted at the idea.
“We must just go and ask Daddy,” they said. “Mummy and Daddy say we must ask them before we leave the garden.”
“Oh no,” said the man, “I don’t have time for that. You must come at once or not at all.”
The three children stared at each other in dismay.
The first said “We’d better not go. Daddy will punish us if we do. Nasty Daddy. He doesn’t really love us.”
“Daddy does love us,” said the second. “So he would want us to go. It would be fun and we’d learn something. He wouldn’t want us to miss out, even though he told us not to.”
But the third said “Daddy does love us, so he must have told us to ask because it would be best for us, even if it’s not nice sometimes.”
When I was at primary school being required to write (what I felt were) highly uninspiring stories about aliens invading the earth, there were some major no-nos. One of which was ending with “and [the protagonist] woke up and found it was all a dream”.
This has led to a substantial fascination on my part with the feeling, at the end of Alice, that the ending was relatively satisfactory. Despite the fact that it seemed to break that cardinal rule.
(I realise not everyone agrees that it does work. I’d enjoy comments with a different take on it).
Though I love and admire it greatly, there’s a lot about Alice in Wonderland that isn’t particularly brilliant. It is, for one thing, a book that lacks a coherent plot (unlike Alice through the Looking Glass, which does actually have a beginning, a quest, and an end). In Wonderland, we wander vaguely from one happening to another, wondering if there is any point, though most of the incidents are fun in themselves.
While I don’t in many ways think much of the ballet, which I feel made far too much use of special effects and far too little use of dance, what they did with the beginning, the end, and the general logic of the happenings was extremely clever. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, though.
But back to the puzzle of the end that shouldn’t work. I think there are several factors in the fact that it does.
It is strongly hinted at the beginning that she’s falling asleep.
She then wanders from one absurd, unreal happening to another. The court case of the tarts, and Alice’s place in it, are not going to be solved in any logical way. That’s already clear. The notion that the cards fly at her, and then become the leaves that her sister is brushing off her face, doesn’t bear very much resemblance to the violent and scary “I’m in prison and the aliens have just tortured my friend to death and then I woke up”. Something weird and unpredictable is going to happen. If the baby has been rescued from its plight not by the local social services department, but by transmogrification, and you can fall out with Time so it is always tea-time, growing too big for the room and then waking up is in accord. And far from obscuring or changing what has already happened, it makes more sense of it. Ah, the reader may think, that was why it was all absurd. That was why the nonsense. It was a dream. Dreams are like that.
The other thing is that the book doesn’t end with her waking up. It ends with her older sister’s thought-monologue on her. The story is (apparently) the tale of a dream, but the book is in a real sense about the girl. Her dreaming and waking up aren’t really the point. The point is who and what she is and what her sister and godfather hope she will become. There is a touch of sentimentality here that I find somewhat irksome, but only, I think, because it is of its time and not part of my culture.
Interestingly, I think the end of “Through the Looking Glass” doesn’t quite work so well. I feel it is more clumsy precisely because the whole book is more coherent. I felt that she might properly have had slightly longer to enjoy the triumphant conclusion of her quest before waking up. But that is not really to criticise the structure of the dream in general, but to suggest that particular part of the narrative might have been even better if handled slightly differently.
(And I do enjoy the kittens and the elephant-bees).
The conclusion I would come to is that the problem with “it was a dream” is not ending in that way in itself. The problem comes when an author breaks the narrative sense of the story, by signalling to the reader with narrative pointers of genre and style and coherence that this is real (in the story sense) and makes sense and is a reflection of real life, and then awkwardly breaking out of that and doing something different which they hadn’t properly pointed towards. If you write about a dream and the person doing the dreaming, the narrative pointers all go in the right direction, and the waking, while still anti-climactic in style, is part of the story rather than interrupting it.