Hungry Like the ‘Wulf

November 18, 2007

Rising from the deep murkiness of the dark, soulless lake in Denmark or possibly Norway, I think, Beowulf returns. Just in time, I suspect, for the Christmas movie season.

When the classic poem Beowulf was written lies suspended in the swirling mists of historical inaccuracy, the target area of composition being in that questionable range of “between the eighth and tenth centuries,” a level of exactness I am used to hearing from weather forecasters and potential girlfriends when asked when our next date may be. Though to be fair at least the historians don’t leave one of the ends as a standing infinity.

It also has a rather unfortunate distinction of being, like Jessica Alba and Derek Jeter, of indeterminate origin. While apparently a strictly Anglo-Saxon composition, it’s clearly of Scandinavian influence, with extraneous slashes and a lot of talk about fishing boats and cell phones.

As a story, Beowulf is equal parts fascinating and rather unremarkable. A kingdom is ravaged by the monster Grendel, ironically one of the few characters of the poem that does not sound like it was composed out of the reject Scrabble letters. The monster, it seems, is unhappy with all of the singing and the celebration of the king’s warriors and subjects, Grendel apparently being a likely candidate as next year’s Resident Assistant. He patiently waits for the men to sleep, then sneaks in and eats a majority of the army.

Now at this point I have to stop and ponder. It seems rather odd that a monster would be able to sneak into a castle and eat a majority of the warriors. Even the drunkest of soldiers would probably elbow up perpendicular to the ground wondering what the fuss is about. I have to assume that either the king’s men were recruited during a shift change at the local Denny’s or someone was dropping Aqua Dots in the mead.

Beowulf, a warrior from a neighboring people, hears of the king’s plight. He offers his services, which the decimated king quickly accepts, and overcomes the beast by tricking the monster and ultimately killing him. Grendel’s mother, filled with an estrogen-fueled rage, assuming medieval Scandinavian monsters produce estrogen, comes to avenge his death, using pretty much the exact same game plan—waiting for the king’s men to sleep, then eats one of them. At this point one begins to suspect that the king’s men weren’t exactly resting up for the SATs. Beowulf quickly dispatches the matron by beheading her after being pulled down into the bottom of the lake and fussing about with +10 swords and immunity spells and a bunch of other weird crap like that.

Beowulf is named king of his own people in recognition of his bravery, and lives a long, boring life that is stretched out for what seems like two thousand couplets. Late in the stages of his life, though, one of Beowulf’s subjects and potential Mensa president sneaks into a dragon’s lair and steals a goblet of indeterminate worth. The dragon, awakening from his slumber, finds the object missing and reacts by burning half the world while tracking down the thief. Beowulf and a red-shirted accomplice with the extraordinarily non-masculine name of Wiglaf go after the dragon, since the remaining population is too frightened to join in the fun, and ultimately are victorious. Alas, Beowulf is mortally wounded and demands that he be buried with all of the dragon’s sizable treasure, ostensibly since the treasure is cursed but you and I both know it’s a not-so-subtle way of an elderly king being forced to fight a dragon saying to his subjects, “piss off, you ungrateful cowards.” And everything ends peacefully, except for Wiglaf, who somehow gets nothing but the shaft out of the whole deal.

Like most ancient literature, Beowulf is scarily one-dimensional. He is a warrior first and foremost, and, to be honest, second, third, and fourth. There aren’t any extended scenes where he describes his feelings to his therapist or higher being, no long talks with a sensitive brother or submissive female. It’s all about hacking, slashing, and the oft-alluded to hedonistic pleasures he will be granted to him upon his successful return, assuming that occurs.

Beowulf’s roster is full of oddly-named characters, as if someone spilled orange juice in the keyboard of the anonymously creative Saxon who wrote it centuries ago, and all the consonants stuck together every time he tried to type something. There’s Hroogar, Wealhpeow, Hygelac, Ecgtheow, Hrunting, and Yrs, none of which I am 100% positive aren’t actually swords or amulets instead of monsters or people.

Of course, there is a lot of interest in this poem recently, which is generally disregarded unless you are attempting to pass, or teach, 10th grade English. The reason, of course, is that a big-budget 3-D version of an ancient, extremely boring poem was released this weekend. Granted, this is an epic poem tailor-made for Hollywood—monsters and fighting and sci-fi-franchise-style money-making potential and a slot for a strong female lead that gets to both 1) seduce and 2) kill someone. The latter is filled by the box-office draw Angelina Jolie, who recently made headlines at the premier when she noted that she was “startled” about how naked she looked all big on the big screen, the actress apparently not having access to the Internet.

Anyway, hopefully the effect of the movie will at least have some positive effect on literacy, much like what Lord of the Rings did for getting students interested in the fantasy genre and High School Musical did for staying home from the theater and reading something. When you have a gripping story, a classic and rich cultural heritage, and an actress with a fantastic rack, it’s amazing what literature can do.

Harry Potter And The Incredibly Oversold Hyperbole

July 17, 2007

The final days are upon us; muggles are crowding in mall book stores and department stores, patiently awaiting the arrival of the final novel in the Harry Potter series. Muggles, along with Squibs, Half-Bloods, Death Eaters, Seekers, Bludgers…and…oh, forget it. I have no idea what any of this means, and a rather large part of me doesn’t care.

The hype surrounding the newest Harry Potter book is largely unprecedented. The author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, is currently the highest earning author of all time. The movies are reliable blockbusters, and millions of people the world over are ardent fans that put Trekkies and Star Wars fans to shame, at least in the percentage demographic of actively participating MILFs.

With such a highly anticipated book, dozens of rumors of various realistic chances of being true are spreading like wildfire across the Internet and beyond. So with due diligence to my regular readers, here is a list of completely verifiable gossip items about the final Harry Potter book:

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is forced to pay out over $660 million dollars to former students for “undisclosed” reasons. In an unrelated story, Snape was transferred to the Sao Paulo branch of Hogwarts.

Hedwig is the result of a chance encounter one sinful night between Charlie the Owl and Henrietta Hippo from the New Zoo Revue.

Harry Potter finally masters a spell that will make an eighteen-year-old actor appear to have yet hit puberty.

“The Deathly Hallows” turns out to be a strict allegory concerning itself mostly with middle-aged housewives who somehow expect the novel they wrote in that Creative Writing Class back in 1982 but had to abandon it when her “study partner” knocked her up to turn into a seven-book franchise but are ultimately let down by the curse of fate known as “having no real talent but delusions of ability in spades.”

The Sorting Hat determined the house assignments that Harry, Hermione, and Ron received not because of their innate abilities, but because Hermione’s father “knew a guy” and Ron was “too Jewish” for Ravenclaw.

Alan Rickman is one creepy-ass dude. This isn’t so much a rumor as established fact.

In one of the final dramatic scenes, Quiddich players go on strike, with the end result being two expansion teams and a salary cap. Hogwarts officials immediately demand a local sales tax be levied to pay for a new stadium or they will move the team to Portland, Oregon.

The Ministry of Magic continues to deny that the Second Wizarding War was fought simply to search for weapons of mortal destruction but was an all-encompassing casus belli, despite what the record states, and in any case they certainly can’t pull out now.

Dumbledore didn’t really die; he simply ran for president as the Green candidate and disappeared in a small puff of irrelevancy.

The last book is pretty much a blatant plagiarism of certain elements of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Lord of the Rings, and every two-dollar book with a wand or pointy hat on the cover from the Scholastic Book Club. Which really isn’t a surprise, since that’s how the first six books were written.

Lord Voldemort is finally destroyed by stripping him of his magical powers and installed as the chairman of the Exxon Corporation, where he manages to gain market share and finds that pissing around with magical spells and prepubescent Merlin wannabes is pretty lame when you have an $87 million dollar golden parachute.

Harry’s choice of becoming a wizard was actually one of the three choices offered to any eleven-year-old with a lightning bolt tattooed on his forehead, the other two choices being professional wrestler and anime villain.

Likewise, Hermione is left to devote her life as a witch with a number of choices few mortals are presented with: witch nurse, witch cook, and witch teacher.

Something happens to Ron, though it appears that no one really cares.

“Avada Kedavra” roughly translates into “If you’re actually paying retail for this book, the spell is not necessary; the magic has already been completed.”

Of the many items in the Harry Potter universe that are invisible to muggles but can only be seen by wizards, perhaps the most prominent is the gaping loss of self-respect inherent in the fact that you’re thirty five years old and reading a book about boy wizards playing made up sports at what is essentially a boarding school for nerds.

A magical spell is created in the last few pages of the book that causes the author to refuse to write a book for at least two years, after which the statements that prequels and sequels are “100% definitely not an option” will suddenly appear as viable opportunities. This spell is called the “one million dollar advance.”

The final twist of the Harry Potter universe is the release of a dark and evil spirit that pervades throughout the lands, its effects dark and unsurpassed in all of history: millions upon millions of schoolchildren snap shut their books, start playing Mario Kart for eight hours a day, and in a few years sell all their hardbacks on eBay for a buck apiece.

Road to the Wodehouse

July 11, 2007

A new collection of stories by P.G. Wodehouse has recently been released, reigniting interest in one of the most underapprecitated writers of the 20th century, as measured in references to newts, aunts, and antique cow-creamers.

P.G. Wodehouse is one of those peculiar British institutions, much like queuing and standing six hours hovering over a kitchen sink scraping a carrot and calling it a soap opera. Most people may not realize the impact that Wodehouse has on American popular culture, mostly in the form of Jeeves, the impenetrable and iconoclastic butler.

In the Wodehouse stories, Jeeves is in the employ of the much lesser-known Bertram Wooster, an elite ne’er do well who goes about his daily routine pissing the afternoons away at social clubs with other like-minded fortunate sons and getting invited to stay at country estates where the chance of getting engaged to a member of the opposite sex that he dislikes with an intensity normally reserved for Klan members and meter maids is approximately 100%.

Personally, I find it appalling that “Wooster” hasn’t entered the vernacular with as much integration as “Jeeves” has. I wouldn’t mind there being a proper noun appropriated for the representation of a born-to-comfort, out-of-touch, trust-fund busybody who assumes that they know what is best despite never having to deal with any aspect of the real world whatsoever. The only phrase in currency that approximates this idea is “presidential nominee for a major political party.”

Technically, as all proper Wodehousians know, Jeeves really isn’t a butler at all. He’s a valet, a distinction that is nearly as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is paid attention to about as much as the terror warning alert system. Jeeves is a butler, by jove, and there’s not much in the American mind that’s going to change that. (For the record, a valet, or gentleman’s gentleman, took care of their employer’s personal attire, such as laying out clothes and drawing baths and the like. A butler is the head of the domestic help. Butler is Dad, valet is your little brother you made your personal slave.)

The plots were clever, witty, and—let’s face it—incredibly redundant. As anyone who has watched Keeping Up Appearances or the Liberal Democrats knows, the British are very fond of using the exact same situations over and over and over again, apparently finding newfound humor in excrementally minute differences in execution. The standard Jeeves & Wooster plot would be something like the following:

1) Wooster purchases some ridiculous item, such as a lavender safari hat, that he is convinced is the height of fashion;
2) Jeeves bitches about it
3) An aunt comes to visit and deliver an ultimatum, usually in the form of:
a. Becoming engaged to a female;
b. Breaking up an engagement
c. Committing some nefarious crime, such as pilfering a pinch of table salt, for some incredibly insufferable reason
4) Wooster screws the pooch on the deal
5) Jeeves fixes it
6) At some point everybody ends up at a country estate
7) Wooster agrees to destroy the item mentioned in the first page of the book that was never mentioned again up to this point.

(Sorry about the outline. Writing about Jeeves and his overcompensating orderliness to rectify the Katrina that is Wooster’s daily routine, one can hardly be helped slanting passionately towards the formal.)

While Wodehouse was a voluminous writer—he has written over ninety books, including eighteen Jeeves & Wooster novels to his name, though one would kind of be hard pressed to claim that there were eighteen different stories—other forms of media bearing the Jeeves & Wooster brand have also been perpetuated. In the early nineties, a well-regarded series was created starring Hugh Laurie (known to us Americans as Dr. Gregory House) as Wooster and Stephen Fry (known to us Americans as “Stock homosexual British guy” in every major motion picture that calls for such a character) as Jeeves. The episodes are largely faithful to the spirit to the books, in characterization, setting, and dialogue. And yet it’s very hard to compare the two; Wodehouse’s ability to stretch even the most minute detail into eight pages of decidedly purple prose just can’t be matched by a youthful Wooster you expect to yell “Is Cameron on the rag again?” at any given moment.

In certain senses, Wodehouse himself could easily have been mistaken for Wooster. While he lived a reasonably gentle life, he was decidedly detached from the real world. I mean, very, very, alarmingly detached. As in during World War II he chose to stay in France because he didn’t realize that this war might, in fact, turn into somewhat of a big deal. And once captured by the Nazis, he was “persuaded” to record some witty bantering about the war, which pretty much boiled down to “Nazis, British, what’s the difference? We’re all just men,” a sentiment that understandably went over just about as well as the Blitz did. (George Orwell, of all people, defended Wodehouse, the defense pretty much boiling down to “Rich guys don’t know any better.” The Home Office officially declared him “naïve and foolish but not traitorous.” With friends like these, and all that.)

Stained as a collaborator, he permanently moved to New York, where the disappearance of policeman’s hats reached an all-time high. The correlation was impeachable. As Jeeves may say, in that amazingly understated manner only Jeeves could do, If you say so, sir.

Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

April 15, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, occasional author and professional curmudgeon, died last Wednesday. So it goes.

Now that his obligatory catchphrase is out of the way, it’s safe to say that Vonnegut represented one of the last true authors to make a career out of simultaneously hating the world and loving it at the same time, a feat unparalleled until Burger King authorized a senior discount for the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich.

Vonnegut was a known pessimist—though, to be fair, not really. He was, occasionally, a sunshine optimist, believing that reason and rationality would one day take precedence over misty-eyed tribalism and short-sighted realpolitik. But mostly he would look at the world and see a cloudy mess of self-interest and brutality, and often clutched forcefully onto the glass-half-empty for much longer than was absolutely necessary. Walking away from the final acts of a Vonnegut novel would make me seem like the pollyannish grand marshal of the Everything’s Always Gonna Be OK Happy Time Fun Parade. But this elaborately inventive grasp of all that is dark and wrong with the world was the perfect fit into the social abyss that was the late 1960’s.

The defining moment of Vonnegut’s life occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. There, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, a horrifyingly violent act that demonstrated to Vonnegut what kind of soulless destruction the human will was capable of propagating, regardless of whether it was to establish a Third Reich, expand religious belief, or sell diet pills to fat housewives. This event no doubt contributed to his fascination with fatalism, something that fares very well when writing science fiction or living through the Vietnam War. Hearing something like this that can be a very humbling experience for someone like me. The single greatest trauma visited upon me when I was a child was the day I missed the Inspector Gadget where the Chief replaces him with a computer, but in the end find out they need him after all, because sometimes computers aren’t capable of feelings. How dastardly.

Though, quite frankly, Vonnegut should only be labeled as a science fiction writer with the loosest of definitions available. His novels are more black comedies mixed with healthy doses of abject satire, armchair physics, and vivid displays of anti-authoritarianism. Like many authors of his generation, he believed in the austere finality of science but was pessimistic about its application; the arms race had created a mockery of the definition of diplomacy and the exponential destruction that nuclear weapons introduced to warfare were not in the least bit offset by pull-string plastic garbage bags, digital stoves, and Tang.

His books were a jumble of perfectly coifed sentences and “experimental” context, often inserting himself into storylines and keeping an arm’s-length distance from the conventional rules of punctuation and grammar. Sometimes these devices introduced a novel way to advance the plot, while others found it to be pretentious, awkward, or an award-winning combination of both. He was also accused of excessively reusing his characters, making most of them mere caricatures of himself, though he defended himself my stating that if he wasted all his time developing new characters, he wouldn’t have the time to find new and creative ways to recycle his plots.

Vonnegut himself specialized in being a killjoy about most things, in some areas more than others. Late in life, he became somewhat of a provocateur without the benefit of being an active author, stating quite plainly that he had paid his dues to the literary establishment long ago and had no desire to continue, a sentiment one hopes will some day, preferably soon, afflict Rosie O’Donnell and Ann Coulter. He presumed that terrorists were “brave people,” acknowledging that he only meant that they were fighting for a belief and not simply random brutality in the inevitable non-apology slash explanation he expressed when the media got wind of it. He regarded the Bush administration as not much more than a gathering of head-barely-above-water frat boys looking to score extra points in some sort of universal Fantasy Global Domination League. Surprisingly, given his ideological influences and disdain for organized religion, he was a detractor of the theory of evolution, refusing to believe that the harsh determinism of science was solely capable of producing occasional acts of genius in the gene pool, geniuses such as (cough, cough) oh, I don’t know, say, Kurt Vonnegut.

His physical troubles paralleled his mental proclamations as well. In the early 80’s he attempted suicide, as his mother had rather unfortunately done, and in the last decade caught his mattress on fire whilst smoking in bed. Indeed, his fatalistic outlook almost made him seem like he was “unstuck in time,” as Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim had done. He seemed to know how and when he was going to die, but for some reason the world wouldn’t let him. And then he fell, and then he died. All together, now: so it goes.