Friday, April 22, 2011

Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit

Rabbits have been much on my mind of late, starting with the Chinese New Year last month. According to that system we are in the Year of the Rabbit; more specifically, the Year of the Golden (Metal) Rabbit, for not only does their horoscope cycle through twelve signs every twelve years, but each sign cycles through the five Chinese alchemical elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. So it takes a larger cycle of sixty years before each specific sign (like Golden Rabbit) comes around. I myself was born in a Water Rabbit Year, and I find that the traits ascribed to such a person fit me more that the aggressive, outgoing character of a Leo which I am strapped with under the Western system: as a Water Rabbit I am creative, compassionate, home-loving, avoiding of confrontation, conservative, outwardly calm with a passionate core, and easily taken advantage of. The sign of the Rabbit is one of the luckiest ones, though this is a bad year for Rabbits, apparently.

Anyway, last month, on the Chinese New Year, when rabbits were prominent in my consideration, I decided to once again look for George, a book I've always remembered from when I was ten. It's about a rabbit named George, who wears glasses and helps a brother and sister with their life. It was an obscure little volume, and I'd been searching the Internet for it for ten years, at least, without a clue to author or publisher. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that the world-wide web had finally been spun fine enough to catch my memories, and George, by Agne Sligh Turnbull, turned up on the radar.

Within a week I had a nice, inexpensive ex-library copy in my hands, and could see that all the details that I could remember were accurate. I read it in less than a hour (it is only ninety-four pages long, and that is with many good line drawings by Trina Hyman). When I put it down I was pleased but puzzled. It was a nice book, but there seemed nothing particularly excellent or special about it. Why had it teased and hung onto my memory over all these years?

George H., a talking rabbit who wears glasses (he doesn't need them, but inherited them from his grandfather, a Belgian hare), turns up at the Weaver household. He helps the mother calm her migraines by letting her pet him (without revealing his unusual talents); but he talks to the children Milly and Tommy, helping them with their manners, their homework, and their vocabulary; the common-sense, working father never sees George and remains sceptical till the end, when he finds George's glasses. George leaves, in best Mary Poppins fashion, when he has solved many of the family's problems.

Perhaps that's why it impressed itself so on me at the time. Perhaps I wanted a secret mentor and friend to help me with my life (and anyone who thinks a ten-year-old doesn't have problems isn't remembering things correctly or was just extraordinarily lucky). The family was just enough like mine that I could squeeze us into their situation. And the odd thing is, looking back, that even pretending at the time to have an imaginary friend helped. Asking myself what would someone like George do, and then doing it myself, helped me get through. I suppose, in a more rarified and advanced way, I still do the same thing.

As anyone who has regularly read this blog knows, I have been gathering many of the old books I read when I was a child. This has been not only an exercise in nostalgia and delight, but in an odd way one of retroactive self-analysis. When I started this entry I had no idea it would lead me where it has. But there it is.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"How To Tell Bad News"

Mr. H.: Ha! Steward, how are you, old boy? How do things go on at home?

Steward: Bad enough, your honour; the magpie's dead.

H.: Poor Mag! So he's gone. How came he to die?

S.: Overeat himself, sir.

H.: Did he? A greedy dog; why, what did he get he liked so well?

S.: Horseflesh, sir; he died of eating horseflesh.

H.: How came he to get so much horseflesh?

S.: All your father's horses, sir.

H.: What! Are they dead, too?

S.: Aye, sir; they died of overwork.

H.: And why were they overworked, pray?

S.: To carry water, sir.

H.: To carry water! And what were they carrying water for?

S.: Sure, sir, to put out the fire.

H.: Fire! What fire?

S.: Oh, sir, your father's house is burned to the ground.

H.: My father's house burned down! And how came it to set on fire?

S.: I think, sir, it must have been the torches.

H.: Torches! What torches?

S.: At your mother's funeral.

H.: My mother dead!

S.: Ah, poor lady! She never looked up, after it.

H.: After what?

S.: The loss of your father.

H.: My father gone, too?

S.: Yes, poor gentleman! He took to his bed as soon as he heard of it.

H.: Heard of what?

S.: The bad news, sir, and please your honour.

H.: What! More miseries! More bad news!

S.: Yes sir; your bank has failed, and your credit is lost, and you are not worth a shilling in the world. I make bold, sir, to wait on you about it, for I thought you would like to hear the news.

--by Anonymous, from A Treasury of the Familiar (1942), ed. Ralph L. Woods.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On The 150th Anniversary Of The Civil War

(John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln's secretaries, gives his assessment of the achievement of the late President.)

"Where," asked Mr. Schuyler, "would you place Mr. Lincoln amongst the presidents of our country?"

"Oh, I would place him first."

"Above Washington?" Mr. Schuyler looked startled.

"Yes," said Hay, who had thought a great deal about the Tycoon's place in history. "Mr. Lincoln had a far greater and more difficult task than Washington's. You see, the southern states had every Constitutional right to get out of the Union. But Lincoln said, no. Lincoln said, this Union can never be broken. Now that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image."

--from Lincoln: A Novel, by Gore Vidal.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Playing Around In Earthsea: A Look At Studio Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea"

The facts of the matter are simple: Tales From Earthsea was released in Japan in 2006; it did not come to the US until 2010; and now in 2011 it is available on DVD. Hiyao Miyazaki had wanted to make a movie about Earthsea since his fabled Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind days, and when Studio Ghibli contacted Ursula K. LeGuin for permission to adapt her work, she agreed, under the impression that Miyazaki himself would direct it. It was, however, relegated to Miyazaki's son Goro, and stands as his debut as a director. After LeGuin watched the film, she commented that it was a fine movie, but it was not her book. Tales From Earthsea is largely the story of The Farthest Shore (LeGuin's third Earthsea book), with elements from Tehanu (the fourth) and even a dollop of The Other Wind (the sixth). As such, it is still the story of the Archmage Ged seeking to stop an evil wizard bent on destroying the balance of life and death so that he can live forever (The Farthest Shore), but includes the character of a young girl who is also a dragon (Tehanu) as a love interest for the young prince Arren, who is caught up in the struggle (The Other Wind, in which Arren is attracted to the dragon/woman Irian). Added to the soup is inspiration from "Shona's Journey," a song by Hiyao Miyazaki. I came to Tales From Earthsea with several drawbacks. For one, I had developed a certain image of what Earthsea and its people were like from Leguin's descriptions, and much of Goro's depictions, while gorgeous in themselves, are strangely discordant to me. The Byzantian splendor of Havenor, the capital city; the beard on Ged; the steampunk-style helmet on Hare, the slaver; the odd riding-beasts; none of these seemed right to me. Granted, there was not the years of iconography to draw on that, say, Peter Jackson had to draw on for his adaptation of Tolkien's work, but then the spirit of the books themselves should have been the artists' guide. So, too, the dynamics of the characters seemed disjointed. The movie starts with the inexplicable murder by Prince Arren of his father, an element that is never adequately dealt with or resolved. With such an immediate strike against the "hero" of the movie, it is hard to feel complete sympathy with his struggles. It is true he is out of balance, and the whole agon of the story is to return the world to Balance, but such a primal taboo is difficult to get over and forgive. (I can almost see it as Goro striking down his own father Hiyao in an attempt to establish his own identity.) The relationship between Arren and Therru, the dragon/girl, while making good cinematic sense, seems tacked on and unlikely to someone who has read the books. The plot, rather than being driven by decisions by the characters, becomes a muddle of captures, escapes, and rescues until the final showdown. Another drawback I came to the film with was, strangely, a familiarity with the productions of Studio Ghibli itself. Time and time again I came across some character design or image trope that echoed earlier films, especially the popular and critically acclaimed Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. While I have no doubt that many of these were developed by Goro himself while working with Hiyao, it does not bode well that they evoke so strongly a Studio Ghibli "style"; the last thing we need is another petrification of an original and imaginative vision. And I have two personal nitpicks that say more about the people who adapted the movie into English than the original crew. One is the pronunciation of "Archmage" with the ch as in "church"; it just sounds better and less mushy if pronounced as k as in "archangel". And the use of Cheech Marin as the voice of Hare the slaver and toady is just odd: he seems to again be doing his best hyena from The Lion King. But all of this is, of course, personal baggage that I bring myself to the viewing of Tales From Earthsea. I am, oddly, in precisely the reverse dilemma I had with Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle; whereas there I saw the movie first and then found it hard to judge the book, here I've read the books first and find it hard to judge the film. I can see it is beautiful, I can even intellectually understand how it hangs together thematically; but there is a glass wall between it and my heart that keeps me from surrendering.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Professor Branestawm: Quotation

"I never used to think I was as clever as I thought I was, but now I see I'm much cleverer than I dared to hope I might be." --Professor Branestawm, after inventing a liquid that brings photographs to life.