Saturday, July 13, 2019

Susan Pevensie

I was recently re-reading That Hideous Strength, and came across several passages that further underscore and buttress my views on Lewis's treatment of Susan Pevensie (spoiler alert: she's not necessarily damned, and Lewis doesn't necessarily object to adult female sexuality).

Surprisingly, it seems that I've not previously published a post on Susan, and more specifically the passage in The Last Battle on which so many people hang their own issues with Lewis:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these.  “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another.  Has not your Majesty two sisters?  Where is Queen Susan?” 
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” 
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have!  Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'” 
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” 
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” 
So a few thoughts here.

First, these are the thoughts and reflections of other human characters -- neither Aslan himself nor an omniscient narrator.  They can be taken with a grain of salt, as they are filtered through the characters' ordinary human knowledge and perceptions.  I would also note that the three who share their opinions are not Susan's siblings, who presumably know her best, since they have known her the longest and actually traveled to Narnia with her.*

Second, we are not told Susan's fate -- not by the narrator, not by Aslan, not even guessingly by her siblings and friends or anyone else.  As far as we know, she is still alive when Lewis draws the Chronicles of Narnia to an end.  We have no reason to assume she is damned.  Indeed, Lewis's other works suggest that we cannot possibly know if someone who is still alive is or will be damned.

For example, in parts IV-VI of chapter 16 of That Hideous Strength, we see the final moments of Wither, Feverstone, and Frost, each of whom are damned.  Yet Lewis makes clear this is a moral choice, even though it may seem inexorable at the moment of choosing.  Thus, in chapter 16, part IV:
[Wither] had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.
And then in part VI, Frost (who has deliberately rejected free will and all of reality as an illusion) finds himself going to a garage and locking himself in irrevocably with "all the inflammables he could think of."  His bodily fate is sealed, but even now, at the bitterest of ends, he is given awareness of moral choice and a chance of salvation:
That tiresome illusion, his consciousness, was screaming in protest: his body, even had he wished, had no power to attend to those screams. Like the clockwork figure he had chosen to be, his stiff body, now terribly cold, walked back into the Objective Room, poured out the petrol and threw a lighted match into the pile. Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul--nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was hardly fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes trolls and turns them into unchangeable stone.
Nor is this an anomaly in Lewis's writings; we see him explore similar ideas in The Great Divorce.

Third, the core concern about Susan's non-friendship with Narnia, as explained by Eustace, is clearly her dismissal and outright denial of something she knows, from personal experience, to be factually true.  Although she has been there many times, she now pretends it was just "funny games" and quite literally child's play.  She even claims -- by praising the others' "wonderful memories" -- to barely remember it.  All this, even though she has personally spoken with Aslan and received counsel from him, has personally seen Aslan voluntarily suffer humiliation, torture, and death to save her treacherous brother Edmund, and has rejoiced and romped with him in his glorious resurrection and triumph over forces of evil.

Now we can see that the comments of Jill and Polly, which follow, explain their view of why Susan has turned away from Narnia.

People often take Jill's reference to "nylons and lipstick" (in conjunction with the reference to Susan being "too keen on being grown-up") as code for adult female sexuality; a form of metonymy, if you will.  Such readers or critics apparently assume that being grown-up and a sexual female results in Susan being cast out of Narnia.**  Of course, as we have already seen, Susan has chosen -- at this time -- to turn away from Narnia, but we do not know her ultimate fate.

(a) Is Sex Bad?

But we might still ask: does Lewis have a problem with sex and/or sexually active females?  Here, I think it's helpful to notice how sexuality takes center stage in That Hideous Strength.  Among the good guys, in chapter 14, part II, Jane Studdock and Margaret Dimble prepare the marital bed for two spouses who will soon be reunited, and we see the scene from Jane's modern, non-Christian*** perspective:
In Mrs. Dimble's hands the task of airing the little house and making the bed for Ivy Maggs and her jail-bird husband became something between a game and a ritual. It woke in Jane vague memories of helping at Christmas or Easter decorations in church when she had been a small child. But it also suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of sixteenth-century epithalamions--age-old superstitions, jokes, and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers, with omens at the threshold and fairies upon the hearth. It was an atmosphere extraordinarily alien to that in which she had grown up. A few weeks ago she would have disliked it. Was there not something absurd about that stiff, twinkling archaic world--the mixture of prudery and sensuality, the stylised ardours of the groom and the conventional bashfulness of the bride, the religious sanction, the permitted salacities of fescennine song, and the suggestion that everyone except the principals might be expected to be rather tipsy? How had the human race ever come to imprison in such a ceremony the most unceremonious thing in the world? But she was no longer sure of her reaction. What she was sure of was the dividing line that included Mother Dimble in that world and left her outside. Mother Dimble, for all her nineteenth-century propriety, or perhaps because of it, struck her this afternoon as being herself an archaic person. At every moment she seemed to join hands with some solemn yet roguish company of busy old women who had been tucking young lovers into beds since the world began with an incongruous mixture of nods and winks and blessings and tears--quite impossible old women in ruffs or wimples who would be making Shakespearean jokes about codpieces and cuckoldry at one moment and kneeling devoutly at altars the next. It was very odd: for, of course, as far as their conversation was concerned the difference between them was reversed. Jane, in a literary argument, could have talked about codpieces with great sang-froid, while Mother Dimble was an Edwardian lady who would simply have ignored such a subject out of existence if any modernised booby had been so unfortunate as to raise it in her presence. 
In Chapter 16, part VI, the humans comment as bears, jackdaws, horses, and other animals start to pair off.  It is the agnostic bachelor MacPhee -- rather than the married Christian Mrs. Dimble or the bachelor Christian Ransom -- who is least comfortable with the increasingly inescapable signs of the animals' mating urges:
"Another love affair," said Mrs. Dimble. "It sounds as if Jack had found a Jill. . . . What a delicious night!" [...] "This," said MacPhee with great emphasis, "is becoming indecent!" 
"On the contrary," said Ransom, "decent, in the old sense, decens, fitting, is just what she is.  Venus herself is over St. Anne's."
Indeed, Ransom soon blesses not only the new ursine mates, but also the humans, as Ivy Maggs is finally reunited with her husband:
"[...] Now, Ivy, you want to go and talk to Tom.  Mother Dimble has put you both in the little room half-way up the stairs, not in the lodge, after all." 
"Oh, sir," said Ivy, and stopped. The Director leaned forward and laid his hand on her head. "Of course you want to go," he said. "Why, he's hardly had time to see you in your new dress yet. Have you no kisses to give him?" he said, and kissed her. "Then give him mine, which are not mine but by derivation. Don't cry. You are a good woman. Go and heal this man. Urendi Maleldil--we shall meet again."
So Ransom strongly hints here that the healing Ivy will offer Tom is both sexual in nature -- he will admire her new dress and receive kisses from her -- and most emphatically good.

Soon, there is a tremendous tumult outside -- "an ear-splitting noise from beyond the window" -- as a pair of elephants begin their courtship.  Again, it is MacPhee who is uncomfortable with this and wishes to draw the curtains as "there are ladies present."  Grace Ironwood sharply contradicts him:
"No," said Grace Ironwood in a voice as strong as his, "there will be nothing unfit for anyone to see. Draw them wider.[...]"
Likewise, birds, bats, mice, and hedgehogs are all apparently driven to copulate, and Ransom implicitly blesses them.  As his time on earth is waning, Jane asks if she may stay with him "to the very end." He instead gently tells her she should not stay because she is being "waited for":
"Me, sir?"
"Yes. Your husband is waiting for you in the lodge. It was your own marriage chamber that you prepared. Should you not go to him?"
"Must I go now?"
"If you leave the decision with me, it is now that I would send you."
"Then I will go, sir. But--but--am I a bear or a hedgehog?"
"More. But not less. Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead. Urendi Maleldil."
Indeed, That Hideous Strength ends with Jane and Mark about to reunite, and with the hint that things will be very different between them -- that they, too, will find the eros and love that has formerly somehow eluded them.

There is nothing here to suggest a view that sex is bad, unwholesome, or in any way associated with evil.  Indeed, it is one of the evil-aligned characters, Professor Filostrato, who speaks against sex, and explains his opposition (ch. 8, part III):
"What are you driving at, Professor?" said Gould. "After all we are organisms ourselves." 
"I grant it. That is the point. In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. [...]  We must get rid of it. By little and little, of course; slowly we learn how. [...] Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation." 
"I don't think that would be much fun," said Winter. 
"My friend, you have already separated the Fun, as you call it, from the fertility. The Fun itself begins to pass away. Bah! I know that is not what you think. But look at your English women. Six out of ten are frigid are they not? You see? Nature herself begins to throw away the anachronism. When she has quite thrown it away, then real civilisation becomes possible. You would understand if you were peasants. Who would try to work with stallions and bulls? No, no; we want geldings and oxen. There will never be peace and order and discipline so long as there is sex. When man has thrown it away, then he will become finally governable."
So there is something about the sexual impulse which, in the bad guys' view, makes humans "ungovernable," resistant to outside control or domination.

Again, I think these views toward sex are consistent with what we see in The Great Divorce.  I'm thinking in particular of the episode involving the tormenting "little red lizard" of lust which is – with the Ghost's very reluctant and agonized permission – killed, and immediately resurrected into "the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold."  MacDonald, as teacher and guide, characterizes this stallion as the "richness and energy of desire."

(b) What Might "Nylons and Lipstick" Refer To, Then, if Not Female Sexuality?

Initially, we should notice the phrase is "nylons and lipstick and invitations" -- not just nylons and lipstick.  The word "invitations" here suggests an interest in being invited to parties where people get dressed up, or at least social events of some kind where one can see and be seen.

Next, we should notice that Jill claims Susan is "interested in nothing now-a-days except" those three things.  The problem, then is not necessarily having an interest in those things, but being exclusively interested in those things, at the expense of everything else -- especially the things that matter most.  We might also suspect that Jill is exaggerating somewhat; for example, presumably Susan has at least a sufficient interest in eating to keep herself alive.  That is, she is really pointing to Susan's over-prioritizing these things; it's question of mistaken priorities.

Is Jill's diagnosis that Susan "always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up" correct?  That is, are we to accept that "nylons and lipstick and invitations" necessarily stand for "being grown-up"?

Well, no -- not according to Polly, who stresses Susan's immaturity:
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” 
What is Polly getting at here?  She claims Susan "wasted" her childhood wanting to be a young adult, and thus raced on to the "silliest time of one's life."  (There is perhaps a subtle implication that this longing may have caused her to neglect her studies and not get as much out of her "school time" as she might.)  What is the nature of such adult silliness?  Well, for a male-specific version, we might turn to The Magician's Nephew (ch. 6):
Children have one kind of silliness, as you know, and grown-ups have another kind.  At this moment Uncle Andrew was beginning to be silly in a very grown-up way.  [...] "Andrew, my boy," he said to himself as he looked in the glass, "you're a devilish well-preserved fellow for your age. A distinguished-looking man, sir." [¶] You see, the foolish old man was actually beginning to imagine the Witch would fall in love with him.  The two drinks probably had something to do with it, and so had his best clothes.  But he was, in any case, as vain as a peacock; that was why he had become a Magician.
So here, grown-up silliness seems to involve vanity -- a preoccupation with one's physical appearance and attractiveness, and a desire to be admired for these superficial qualities.

All in all, it appears to me that the phase Susan is in, the one that Polly considers "the silliest time of one's life," is young adulthood.  I would agree that this phase is characterized by a preoccupation with superficial matters such as one's physical appearance (here, nylons and lipstick) and popularity (here, invitations).  And it is not at all unusual for immature young men and women to strive desperately to appear "grown-up" -- perhaps taking up smoking or drinking or other "adult" activities, which mature adults might enjoy in moderation or even do without, since they know their status as grown-ups does not depend on such things.

Would this work for a male character?  I say yes.  Men too, especially in young adulthood, may be preoccupied with superficial matters such as their physical appearance (perhaps symbolized by pomade and cummerbunds, or close-fitting jeans, or over-attention to curating their facial hair) and popularity (whether invitations, or getting to various "bases" with the ladies).  And if they race to that stage and seek to linger there, rather than maturing, I think they should likewise be held up for scorn at their silliness.

But again, I don't think we have to credit Polly's prediction that Susan will "waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age."  Who knows what Susan will do and what she will choose, over time?  Indeed, the death of her siblings in a train wreck might be quite sobering in and of itself.  But even without that, she might well outgrow her focus on transitory and superficial things -- life has a way of doing that, as one learns to balance the siren call of pleasure with the practical necessities of paying bills.  Or perhaps she will -- like many men and women in real life -- find deeper meaning in love, a career, children, or intellectual pursuits.

In sum, Susan Pevensie's story is not written, and we will never know what would have happened.  It is deliberately left open, like the fate of the Entwives, and I think that those who condemn Lewis for this are not seeing what he wrote, but are instead bringing their own prejudices to bear.

*  Then again, Jill and Eustace have actually met Tirian before and had adventures with him over the course of the book.  So perhaps it's not surprising they'd speak up.

** Of course, in one sense, everyone is cast out of Narnia in The Last Battle, since Narnia itself comes to an end.  But heaven contains all worlds as they should have been, including Narnia.  Or, to be more precise, the Narnia they have known "was not the real Narnia.  That had a beginning and an end.  It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world." (ch. 15, Digory speaking)

*** In That Hideous Strength, ch. 15, part IV, we learn "Jane had abandoned Christianity in early childhood, along with her belief in fairies and Santa Claus."

Narnia: What Would Have Happened?

Twice, when Lucy messes up, she wants to know what would have happened had she done the right thing -- and Aslan declines to tell her.  But when Digory very reluctantly does the right thing, Aslan consoles him (in a sense) by telling him what would have happened had he done the wrong thing.

As I have summarized it here, we can see a certain philosophical approach that might reconcile Aslan's decision to tell, or not tell, the foreclosed alternative future.  And ordinarily I'd say Aslan's approach need not be consistent -- for example, it could simply vary depending on the circumstances and his relationship with the person he's talking to.

But unfortunately, Lewis complicates the matter by having Aslan tell Lucy -- twice -- that people are never told what would have happened.  Aslan announces this as a categorical rule in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but three years later, Lewis does not in any way acknowledge this prior statement or even attempt to carve out an exception as Aslan breaks this "rule" for Digory in The Magician's Nephew.
"Oh, Aslan," said Lucy.  "You don't mean it was [my fault]?  How could I--I couldn't have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I?  Don't look at me like that ... oh well, I suppose I could.  Yes, and it wouldn't have been alone, I know, not if I was with you.  But what would have been the good?"
Aslan said nothing. 
"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right--somehow?  But how?  Please, Aslan!  Am I not to know?" 
"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan.  "No.  Nobody is ever told that."
 (Prince Caspian, ch. 10 [published 1951])

"Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way.  And you have misjudged your friend.  She is weak, but she loves you.  She was afraid of the older girl and said what she does not mean." 
"I don't think I'd ever be able to forget what I heard her say."
"No, you won't." 
"Oh dear," said Lucy.  "Have I spoiled everything?  Do you mean we would have gone on being friends if it hadn't been for this--and been really great friends--all our lives perhaps--and now we never shall." 
"Child," said Aslan, "did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?" 
(The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, ch. 11 [published 1952])

"I--I nearly ate one [of those apples] myself, Aslan," said Digory.  "Would I--" 
"You would, child," said Aslan.  "For the fruit always works--it must work-- but it does not work happily for any who pluck it at their own will. [...] And the Witch tempted you to do another thing, my son, did she not?" 
"Yes, Aslan.  She wanted me to take an apple home to Mother." 
"Understand, then, that it would have healed her; but not to your joy or hers.  The day would have come when both you and  she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness."  [...]  But now Aslan was speaking again, almost in a whisper: 
"That is what would have happened, child, with a stolen apple.  It is not what will happen now.  What I give you now will bring joy.  It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal.  Go.  Pluck her an apple."  
(The Magician's Nephew, ch. 14 [published 1955])

I suppose we could invent a silent condition to the "rule" -- perhaps Aslan meant, "no one is ever told what would have happened, if they have the temerity to ask about it" or "no one is ever told what would have happened, if they had done the right thing."

But I suspect this is more of an indication that Lewis was going with what made sense in the moment for the story and characters and whatever points he wished to make... rather than worrying about developing or maintaining "the inner consistency of reality" which so preoccupied Tolkien.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Brave Hobbits

Frodo, Hobbit of the Shire

Recently, @alas_not_me noted the unusual distinction given to Frodo when wielding the Phial of Galadriel (as opposed to when wielding the Ring):
Then holding the star aloft and the bright sword advanced, Frodo, hobbit of the Shire, walked steadily down to meet the eyes.  (758)
The moniker seems almost to deflate the heroic moment by calling attention to Frodo's unheroic, no-larger-than-life status:  He is a hobbit, not a hero or warrior, even though he shows similar courage.  In the event, Shelob is temporarily dismayed by the light of the Phial and retreats.  But not for long; she soon returns and overpowers him.

But I found myself wondering if this formula - a seemingly heroic title that almost paradoxically stresses the character's lowly status as a hobbit - was repeated for the other three.  Here's what I found.

Samwise the Hobbit

We first see the words "Samwise the hobbit" after Gollum's near-repentance, when Gollum explains he "was given that name ['Sneak'] by kind Master Samwise, the hobbit that knows so much" (753).  This formality is clearly a bit of sarcasm, designed to put Samwise on the defensive with Frodo, since Gollum knows perfectly well Frodo will disapprove of the name-calling.  Indeed, we might say Gollum grants Sam this title in spite, at the time of Sam's greatest blunder.

But not long after Frodo's heroic moment with the Phial, Sam gets his own.  Crouched in fear, seeing his death in Shelob's eyes, Sam responds to "a thought [that] came to him, as if some remote voice had spoken."  As he grips the Phial and calls on Galadriel, his voice is suddenly and briefly the vessel or conduit for some other will crying in a language he does not know.  The short poem ends,
And with that he staggered to his feet and was Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast's son, again. (766)
At this point, Sam is thrown back on his own linguistic resources and his own courage, but his own rustic words and fierce passion immediately set the Phial ablaze again and he chases Shelob off for good this time (as far as he and Frodo are concerned).  So the title here granted by the narrator emphasizes Sam's normalcy, his hobbitness and his lowly roots, just as he shows his quality and the Phial responds to it.

Sam is one more time referred to as "Samwise Hamfast's son," but it is not a heroic moment.  Rather, it is highlighting that Sam is thrown on his own hobbit resources to figure out his priorities and plan of action:  But [Frodo and Sam] were far beyond aid, and no thought could yet bring any help to Samwise Hamfast's son; he was utterly alone.  (939)  Here, too, the narrator seems to be emphasizing Sam's ordinariness.  He is not a man (or hobbit) set aside for great things; he is not marked as special.  He must instead think for himself and do his best with no guarantees of wisdom or success - and so he does.

Meriadoc the Hobbit

We should perhaps be suspicious that Merry is in for great deeds when he rides off to war in disobedience to Théoden:
Thus it came to pass that when the king set out, before Dernhelm sat Meriadoc the hobbit, and the great grey steed Windfola made little of the burden.... (842)
Yet during the battle itself, including the moment when he pierces the Black Rider's sinew behind his mighty knee, Merry is referred to as "Merry"; and so also in the moment immediately following, when he cries out "Éowyn! Éowyn!" Only in the aftermath of this heroic deed -- as he grieves -- does the narrator again grant him a heroic title:
And there stood Meriadoc the hobbit in the midst of the slain, blinking like an owl in the daylight, for tears blinded him.... (881)
And still Meriadoc the hobbit stood there blinking through tears, and no one spoke to him, indeed none seemed to heed him. (884)
Here, the title seems to lend grandeur to his grief, a sort of heroism in the ordinary.

As with the previous examples, the formula "Meriadoc the hobbit" seems to stress that an individual from a relatively obscure and insignificant people -- one typically "left out of the old lists, and the old stories" (484) --  has somehow got caught up in the epic struggle between good and evil.

Peregrin the Hobbit / Peregrin Paladin's Son 

Alone of the four hobbits, Pippin seems to have no particular heroic moment and thus no similarly elevated nomenclature associated with such a moment.*  Instead, he gets called "Fool of a Took!" with some regularity.

FN* Thus, when Pippin is given titles, the context is quite different.  For example, he refers to himself as "Peregrin son of Paladin of the Shire of the Halflings" in swearing fealty to Gondor (791), and Gandalf and Denethor refer to him as "Peregrin son of Paladin" in connection with this service (792, 794, 863).  And earlier, at Orthanc, with mock-formality, Merry refers to himself as "Meriadoc, son of Saradoc" and Pippin as "Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the House of Took" (581).

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Giles in "Helpless"

In an article lauding Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of non-toxic masculinity, the author notes -- essentially in passing -- that Giles at one point "drugs [Buffy] to rob her of her power at the behest of their governing body, to test her resilience and resourcefulness. They [Buffy and Giles] weather these trials and grow stronger."

This is a reference to the episode "Helpless" (3.12), in which Buffy comes face to face with a truly shocking abuse of trust by Giles. It doesn't help that he has betrayed her trust only at the instruction of the council of watchers, his employer and supposed "governing body."

I think what moves Giles into non-toxic territory, in "Helpless", is his reaction when he realizes the enormity of what he's done:

  • He realizes he has done wrong, and is filled with shame. 
  • He admits his mistake and tells Buffy everything. 
  • He apologizes -- and more importantly seeks to make things right: "You have to listen to me. Because I have told you this, the test is invalidated. You'll be safe, I promise. Whatever I have to do, to deal with Kralik and to win back your trust-
  • He follows through on this promise.  He stands up to Travers and the council, taking Buffy's side, entering the field of danger and disobeying orders to help her.  (She still dispatches Kralik, of course, but a secondary baddie takes her by surprise and Giles manages to dust him while Buffy looks around for a weapon.) 
  • And so Giles makes things right with Buffy at some personal cost, since he is fired for it.
Surely this is non-toxic masculinity. He's an authority figure for her, an unambiguous father-figure.  But when he messes up big-time, he is frank and contrite and sets aside his own safety and security to put things right.  There's no "father knows best" mentality here; he owns his mistakes.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Remembered Conversations in LotR

AlasNotMe has made some interesting observations about Frodo's memory of his conversation with Gandalf, noting (esp. at fn 5) that the words remembered are not identical to those originally spoken.

There is actually a similar phenomenon with Merry at the Pelennor Fields, remembering Théoden's words to him.

Théoden had been as gentle as possible in turning down Merry's request to accompany him to battle, saying to him: "This is no journey for such steeds as Stybba, as I have told you.  And in such a battle as we think to make on the fields of Gondor what would you do, Master Meriadoc, swordthain though you be, and greater of heart than of stature?" (803).

When Merry remembers this conversation, he leaves out the gentleness and courtesy and instead focuses on the part that he took most to heart, feeling "bitterly the truth of the old king's words: in such a battle what would you do, Meriadoc?" (837).

As edited, these words are shorn of (1) the respectful titles of "Master" and "swordthain"; (2) the seeming specificity about the kind of battle in which he might not be much use (due to his small stature), kindly leaving open the possibility that in other battles elsewhere he could hold his own; and (3) the acknowledgment that Merry's valiant, odds-defying courage (greatness of heart) is belied only by accident of physical limitations:
in such a battle as we think to make on the fields of Gondor what would you do, Master Meriadoc, swordthain though you be, and greater of heart than of stature?

Riding In to Court

In my post about the Green Knight and the Mouth of Sauron, I hadn't been sure what to make of the fact that the Green Knight rides in to Arthur's feast; it seemed discourteous, even deliberately provocative.

Now I'm reading The Forest of Medieval Romance, by Corinne J. Saunders, who says that the Green Knight "rides into the court, thus imitating the role of king's champion at coronation feasts" (148).

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sifting the Evidence

Very interesting discussion, and a reminder of the need to double-check seemingly common-sense interpretations when considering legal records:
  • As to whether those convicted were executed, the answer hinges on the meaning of "Death Recorded" in the Old Bailey records - apparently a term of art. 
  • As to whether the underlying charges involved consenting adults, the interviewer appears to have identified some counterexamples among the book's featured examples. 
For my own part, I wonder -- if the prosecutors targeted consenting adults, might we expect to see pairs of prosecutions?  (Not necessarily, I suppose, if one or more previously-consenting partners decided to cooperate with the prosecution; then again, presumably the cooperator[s] would not portray the relationship as purely consensual.  And I suppose if men did not dare and/or desire to enter into long-term exclusive and stable relationships in that era, they would not necessarily be prosecuted in pairs.)

Edited 5/25/2019 to add some further reflections:

I don't know what site(s) the author was using to search the Old Bailey records, but I could not find a definition or explanation of "Death Recorded" anywhere at the Old Bailey Proceedings Online site (  I explored menus and links within the site itself, and also tried site-specific google searches, to no avail.

After running an unrestricted google search for some phrases the interviewer read on-air, however, I eventually found the explanation of the term at the Digital Panopticon site:
The emotional impact of the death sentence and the authority of the law was moreover undermined in the early nineteenth century by the fact that the overwhelming majority of capital convicts were being pardoned, and the death sentence thus turned into a mere formality.  In recognition of this problem, in 1823 a new practice of “death recorded” was introduced, whereby judges could abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for a pardon. 
The carefully-choreographed theatre of sentencing and its emotional impact might also be undermined by open acts of defiance by the convict or the attending crowd.  It was complained in the eighteenth century that some capital convicts made light of their sentence by comments and gestures. 
The court sometimes decided to postpone or respite a sentence until a later sessions, such as in the case of pregnant female convicts, or for reasons that were unrecorded.  In 1848, judges were empowered to invite the jury to respite sentences in cases where the law was doubtful.  In these instances, the case was passed on to the twelve judges at the newly established Court for Crown Cases Reserved (superceded in 1907 by the Court of Criminal Appeal).
Searching the Digital Panopticon

The Digital Panopticon site offers a different search mechanism from the Old Bailey Proceedings Online site.

For example, it seemingly allows you to search for all males actually executed from, say, 1835-1899; that particular search came up with 5 hits, with executions in 1835 and 1837 only.

(And indeed, for what it's worth, searching for males executed between 1838-1925 on the Digital Panopticon site results in zero hits.  After playing around with searches a bit, it would seem the last recorded execution of a male in their dataset occurred in 1837, and the last recorded execution of a female in their dataset occurred in 1832.)

Relationship Between the Two Sites?

As described on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online home page (
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913
A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court. 
As described on the Digital Panopticon home page (
Tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925This website allows you to search millions of records from around fifty datasets, relating to the lives of 90,000 convicts from the Old Bailey.
The Digital Panopticon site credits the Old Bailey Proceedings Online site as  "foundational":
The Old Bailey Proceedings are the foundational source for Digital Panopticon. They contain published accounts of the criminal trials which led to the convictions and sentences for the 90,000 convicts whose lives are traceable on this website. Each trial account provides basic details about the offender, offence, verdict and punishment sentence, as well as some verbatim testimonies from those who testified at the trial.
A full digitised edition of the Proceedings is available from the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. 
But the Digital Panopticon draws from a broader base of records, presumably (or at least potentially) providing a more complete picture of the fate of each defendant:

Trial Records

  • Old Bailey Proceedings 1740-1913
  • Old Bailey Associated Records 1740-1834
  • Newgate Calendars of Prisoners for Trial 1782-1853
  • England and Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892

Post-Trial and Sentencing Records

  • Capital Convictions at the Old Bailey 1760-1837
  • Home Office Criminal Entry Books 1782-1876
  • Judges Reports on Criminals 1784-1827
  • Petitions for Pardon 1797-1858

Transportation Records

  • Middlesex Convicts Delivered For Transportation 1785-1792
  • British Transportation Registers 1787-1867
  • Convict Indents (Ship and Arrival Registers) 1788-1868
  • Surgeons Notes from Transport Vessels 1817-1857

Colony Records

  • New South Wales Convict Indexes 1788-1873
  • New South Wales Convict Savings Bank Books 1824-1868
  • Van Diemen's Land Founders and Survivors Convicts 1802-1853
  • Van Diemen's Land Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853
  • Van Diemen's Land Convict Labour Contracts 1848-1857
  • Western Australia Character Books and General Registers 1850-1868
  • Western Australia Convict Probation Records 1850-1868

Imprisonment Records

  • Bridewell House of Correction Prisoners 1740-1795
  • Deaths in London Prisons 1760-1869
  • Hulks Registers 1801-1879
  • Prison Registers 1770-1951
  • Middlesex House of Detention Calendars 1836-1889
  • Newgate Calendars of Prisoners 1855-1931
  • UK Convict Prison Captions and Transfer Papers 1843-1871
  • UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts 1853-1925
  • Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals 1881-1925
  • Prisoner Photograph Albums 1871-1873

Civil Records

  • Records Associated with London Lives 1740-1800
  • Census Returns for England and Wales 1841-1911
  • FreeBMD Deaths, 1837-1925

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Tempest in a Teapot: Easter Worshippers

Seems to me that "Easter worshippers" is shorthand for "people worshipping on Easter Sunday."

In the US, at least, churches are often full to the brim on Easter Sunday with what we might call "cultural Christians" -- folks who do not ordinarily grace the inside of any church and are not necessarily Christians in any theologically meaningful sense on a day-to-day basis (prayer life, devotion to Christ's teachings, etc.).  So from a purely technical point of view, "Easter worshippers" could potentially be more accurate than "Christians" to describe the victims.

In any event the phrase, though inelegant and easily mockable, is clear enough.  It seems odd to complain that these tweets failed to use the word "Christians," when the word "Easter" makes clear that the victims were not culturally or theologically Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or the like.  Does the word "Christian" have some totemic power that it must be invoked in a tweet expressing sympathy for the victims?

Moreover, the phrase "Easter worshippers" arguably gets to the core of the matter -- these attacks were not just random attacks on Christians on some random Sunday.  They were targeting Christians on the highest of high holy days, the day when it was fully revealed that Jesus was not just another nice guy who finished last, but instead was God himself incarnate, sacrificed and resurrected for us.  And they were targeting Christian churches on a day when anyone with any cultural or theological affinity to Christianity whatsoever would likely be in a church. (Presumably in order to maximize the deaths/injuries.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

"We were worsted"

I associate "worsted" with wool, but Tolkien uses the verb form of worst twice in LotR, in places where I'd have been inclined to say bested or defeated:

  • Merry (post-barrow): "The men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted.  Ah! the spear in my heart!"
  • Gimli: "With its own weapons was it worsted!"

According to the OED, worst, v. is about two centuries older than best, v., and slightly rarer nowadays.  But they are essentially synonyms; just as flammable and inflammable are synonyms.

So for worst, v., the second meaning is the one in current use:
2. transitive. Cf. best, v. 
a. To get the better of (an adversary) in a fight or battle; to defeat, overcome.

b. To defeat in argument, to outdo or prove better than (a person). Also: to overcome or foil (an undertaking). Frequently in passive.
But for best, v., there is only one meaning:
transitive. To get the better of, to get an advantage over; to outwit. Also: to cheat, defraud; cf. bester n.
I think bested may be more popular with modern Americans, because it focuses on the victor: who was best?  Whereas worsted focuses on the loser: who came out worst?

So compare "With its own weapons was it bested!"  vs "With its own weapons was it worsted" -- Tolkien's version has better alliteration, of course, but it also emphasizes the irony of this particular defeat.

(Curiously enough, as Corey Olsen has noted, cleave and splice are each their own antonym; also sanction, for that matter.)

Monday, April 15, 2019

First-World Problems

Carolyn Hax, responding to a letter-writer’s self-negating comment (“I know there is so much worse stuff going on in the world right now”):
This can be a useful thought exercise for dealing with disappointment, say, but for grief, especially on so many fronts? There’s no “first-world loss,” there’s just loss — unless your Mercedes-Benz has died.
Washington Post online, April 14 at 11:59 PM.