Of Art that Matters

In lieu of using my own words today, I’m going to point you to an amazing commencement address given to the newly graduated Juilliard class (and many thanks to my friend Caitlin Hammon, an amazing artist in her own right, for pointing me to this address). Joyce DiDonato does an amazing job expressing herself clearly and concisely concerning the role of art in today’s society, so you should all go read that here.

To summarize it, I will use a quote from one of my many guilty pleasures, One Tree Hill, and simply say: “Hey! Your art matters. It’s what got me here.”

Considering the great loss the world suffered yesterday in the death of Maya Angelou, I think we cannot be reminded of that fact enough.

“The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”

-Maya Angelou

cagedbird

Of Heroes, Travels, and Historical Dragon-Slayers

To continue recounting my sojourn abroad, I’m going to theme today’s post as notable dragon-slayers. I have written before on individual dragons themselves, but given the roads and places I trod recently, I think the dragon-slayers are entitled to their own post. Starting, of course, with one of the original and most badass of all dragon-slayers: King Arthur.

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

Now, given that my recent trip led me all around the British Isles, you may be surprised to learn that the above picture is not actually a ghost I saw of King Arthur, just a lovely painting of him. Not to say I didn’t see his ghost, but phantoms are remarkably hard to photograph; they hardly like sitting still long enough.

I did, however, get the chance to see Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, which is a peak in the center of the city reputed to be one of the possible sites of Camelot– and that was just on my first day:

arthursseat

When I reached Wales, I journeyed to what I consider King Arthur’s shrine (I’m nothing if not devoted), and that would be the mountain of Cader Idris, which I did hike to the top of (via the steepest path, by the way). There are a number of legends surrounding this mountain; one of them states that if you spend the night on the mountain, you’ll come down either a madman or a poet. Another is that King Arthur and his knights are sleeping underneath Cader Idris, awaiting the time when Britain needs them again. Tell me you can look at these pictures and possibly think otherwise:

cader

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

looking over the edge into the fog

looking over the edge into the fog

I know many people tell the story King Arthur’s one-day return with a wink and a nudge, but there’s a reason we’re still telling his story today. Part of it is that the story of Camelot is one of the greatest tragedies of all time; it’s got it all: action, adventure, romance, heaps of forbidden sex, betrayal, honor, heartbreak. And since those things will continue to exist as long as people do, King Arthur will also continue to endure in all the various incarnations he’s been granted by storytellers, fantasy writers, historians, and any other interested parties.

But King Arthur is also a cultural, a mythic, hero– and no eye rolls about outdated chivalry or misogynistic readings of his mythology or anything else like that, for I’m perfectly serious. A man who tried to do the right thing for his people, for his kingdom, for his marriage, and who might’ve gotten tangled up in a whole heap of stuff along the way but who persevered and did the best he could. That is heroism. Heroes don’t always win and they don’t always get the girl; sometimes they lose the girl, the fight, and the kingdom– but that hardly makes them unheroic.

looking down at the surrounding valleys

looking down at the surrounding valleys from Cader

view from the top

view from the top

Speaking of heroes who seem to lose, get ready for this shift: I’m going to move on to Oscar Wilde now, whose grave I visited in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (why yes, I did manage to sneak in two days in Paris during my 2-week whirlwind trip around the UK):

oscarwildegrave

Oscar Wilde is one of my personal heroes, and oh what an understatement that is. I remember the first time I read “The House of Judgment,” I wept as hard as I’d laughed when I first saw The Importance of Being Earnest performed. I won’t go into all the details of the way Wilde was vilified in his society, aside from just to say that it was utterly and incomprehensibly cruel and wicked and wrong, but I do want to transcribe here what is engraved on the back of his tomb in Paris:

“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.”

Too beautiful and heartbreaking to elaborate on. So my final downtrodden hero of the day is William Wallace. I had the chance to visit Stirling to see both Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, both of which were breathtaking. The views from the monument in particular were astounding:

view from the monument

at the top of the monument

viewfromwallace2

and again

The monument is essentially a massive tower with several different floors you reach via a tiny stone spiral staircase. Super fun when you’re going up and others are coming down. One of the floors– and my favorite, obviously– was the Hall of Heroes, which contained busts of a number of famous and influential Scotsmen, as well as (brace yourself) William Wallace’s actual sword, enshrined in a glass case of beauty.

the sword to beat all swords... except for Excalibur

the sword to beat all swords… except Excalibur

Again, Wallace seemed to have lost everything in his fight against tyranny, and in many ways, he did. In many other and equally important ways, however, he won. The Battle of Bannockburn happened only a handful of years later, which won Scotland independence, and Wallace has continued to be looked to as an inspiration by many groups throughout history seeking independence, equality, justice, etc.

So, I guess today was more about “losing” heroes than anything, but it’s good to remember that just because heroes don’t always seem to win, that doesn’t mean they don’t. That doesn’t mean the light doesn’t shine a little brighter, the darkness retreat a little more, as we continue to tell their stories– their defeats and their triumphs– for years and centuries after they’ve gone.

Of Carelessness, Cruelty, and Contests

Having just finished and turned in my final paper of the semester, I want to revisit briefly my dragon of the day from two weeks ago– cruelty– because I’ve been continuing to think about it often, and it just so happens to fit beautifully with my paper topic. While the details of everything I wrote are certainly not necessary to rehash here, I’ll summarize as concisely as I can to say that my paper was about Daniel Deronda (a Victorian novel by the illustrious and scandalous George Eliot) and about the aesthetics within the novel.

All that to say, my paper considered how we determine (unconsciously or not) how we will treat someone based on his or her physical appearance. *eyes roll into the backs of everyone’s skulls*

From the 2002 BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda

From the 2002 BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda

Yes, I realize this is an obvious statement, but I want to think about it in the context of cruelty, and when it is deemed socially acceptable (even if it’s not at all) to be cruel, given someone’s physical/mental/religious/etc state. In Daniel Deronda, cruelty was always sanctioned when the upper-class British characters were dealing with Jewish characters (not for nothing is this considered to be a proto-Zionist novel, as the Jewish characters planned to form their own state where they could be free from such discrimination).

This of course comes in a long line of discrimination. Let’s not forget that it used to be acceptable– even encouraged– for the upper classes to visit the mental hospital of Bedlam and (for a small fee) look at, poke with sticks, and laugh at the baited, caged, and chained inmates. In fact, the highest numbers of visitors to Bedlam usually came around work holiday times. And later in the Victorian era, there was what’s known as slumming: well-to-do Victorians would essentially take ‘tours’ of London’s East End slums as a depraved form of tourism (sometimes dressings as members of a lower class themselves), and they would wander the streets to see and scrutinize slum inhabitants like they were a circus display.

a cartoon illustrating slumming from Punch

a cartoon illustrating slumming from Punch

I’m not convinced society has changed significantly since then. We may have changed the ways we “slum” or “poke,” but the act of cruelty I wrote about two weeks ago (which is still clearly weighing heavily on my mind) was perpetrated in part against this person because the perpetrators believed they could get away with it. When someone has a disability (physical or otherwise) or even when someone is simply non-confrontational to a fault, it’s so easy to tear them apart casually, carelessly, cruelly. When slum inhabitants don’t have a voice, when inmates of psychiatric facilities don’t have a defender, when those that people view as “less than” don’t have a way to speak up, it pushes me to the edge.

I think automatically here of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, whom Fitzgerald describes thusly: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” This description makes me shudder, and not just because of Fitzgerald’s flawless prose. Carelessness and cruelty go hand in hand, and it is far too easy to bully and trample the life, the dreams, of someone who may have a more difficult time fighting back.

GREATGATSBYPoster

It also disturbs me that with Bedlam, the donations that ‘tourists’ would give to keep the facility running were at their highest when the hospital allowed visitors to come visit it like a zoo. When they banned visits from outsiders, donations plummeted. Additionally, Victorian ‘slummers’ often did so to entertain themselves, but philanthropists and missionaries often went slumming in the guise of “helping” the poor. They determined the “undeserving” versus the “deserving” poor– who they should help, in other words, and who should be left to flounder and fall by the wayside because they were ‘less than worthy.’ Sometimes, of course, they did help improve conditions in the slums, but it’s not those people I’m thinking of today.

Do we have to see or experience someone’s suffering to know we should help them? Do we have to see the effect our own cruelty has on someone to know we should be careful? If the answer is yes to either question, we should all shudder.

The Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

The Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

Now, as a final and unrelated side note, I may not have access to the internet for the next two weeks (although hopefully I’ll find some time to log on between now and then). In case I don’t, however, I just wanted to say I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth; I’m just going to the other side of it.

So, while I’m gone, I’m going to post this for all my reader-writers. It’s a short story competition in fantasy, sponsored by Baen Books, and which I will be entering myself. While I realize it is creating more competition for myself by spreading the word about this contest, the best writer will win regardless, and it’s only winning if you’re up against the best. So, happy writing until next time, and here is the link from Baen Books (thanks to Larry Correia for posting this on his blog, as otherwise I might not have seen it!).

Of Dragonlings and Favorite Stories

Today’s is going to be a very short post. I unfortunately have found myself backed into a corner by a whole host of little dragonlings, and while I am confident in my slaying abilities, this week is going to be full of guts and glory rather than blog posts. So, stay tuned next week for tales of my dazzling triumph.

So as to not leave you empty-handed, however, I’m going to recommend a book for everyone (and of which I happen to be reading a portion aloud to my students today); that book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has always been one of my favorite authors, and I have pored over every word he has written. With this book, he has outdone himself.

image

I don’t want to summarize or hint at any of the plot, as to do so would take away from the full effect of the book. Instead, I will simply say that it is a very quick read– and one that you will want to read in one sitting– but that you will start reading again as soon as you savor the last word. Its lyricism, subtlety, and painful beauty make it the best thing this voracious reader has encountered in quite some time. So, happy reading until next time.

image

Dragon of the Day

So, as a would-be dragon slayer who often finds it difficult to spot camouflaged dragons in today’s world of grey, I want to tackle what I’m going to call my dragon of the day. Today, that dragon is the often disembodied creature of cruelty.

Cruelty is a strong word, I realize, but I want to think about it today in light of something that happened this week. While I have been asked not to go into details, the details are not necessarily essential to this case. The fact is, I saw an incredible act of cruelty this week that ruined not just someone’s career, but someone’s entire life trajectory– and this act was done with no more consideration of the consequences than if the perpetrator was just throwing away a newspaper.

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What upset me most about this action was that the cruelty could so easily have been prevented, stopped, halted, at any point in the last few months; unfortunately, it could only have been stopped by the perpetrator herself, and there was nothing I could do to help. Instead, this person chose purposefully and deliberately to change this person’s life in irrevocable ways, and it broke my heart as much as it enraged me.

Now, of course, the question: what to do? Well, imagine my surprise when I attended a Maundy Thursday service during this Holy Week, and the homily was on cruelty. The priest began by discussing the fact that Christ is often regarded as “nice” and “passive”– and that this is hardly the case. After all, as one of my favorite lines from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe states regarding Aslan (which I may be paraphrasing slightly): “He’s not a tame (or safe) lion. But he is good.”

Aslan, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Aslan, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

There is a massive difference between being good, and being tame. I was so disappointed, then, when after all the build-up discussion of seeing cruelty in the world and all the build-up discussion of Christ’s own passion and conviction that led him often to make decisions, and take actions, that were not popular, not to mention not “nice”– that after all that, the priest ended by essentially saying that we should be nice, and that we should remember to show mercy.

Now I am the first to admit that I need mercy and that I hope I extend the same mercy to others that I would like to be extended to me. However. While Holy Week is all about mercy, it is also about justice, and I don’t think our response to cruelty can always be just to have mercy, or just to be nice. There is a time and a place to turn the other cheek, but there’s also a time and place to stand up for what is right, to fight cruelty and evil in whatever forms they take.

For what happened this week, I can’t physically fight back against the cruelty, no matter how much I might like to. Instead, I’m going to take up a pen and write a letter to disseminate to as many people as I think might be able to effect change in this situation. And maybe it won’t do any good, maybe it won’t alter anything– but I have to try.

“Seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed.”

-Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

Of Heroism in a World of Grey

This weekend, I saw the new Captain America movie. While I won’t gush on about my feelings concerning the specifics of the movie– aside from simply saying that it exceeded my expectations and was so good that everyone needs to go see it immediately– it gave me a lot (and far too much to put in one post) to think about. I’m sure I’ll talk about it all eventually, but today, I just want to think about heroism– and good and evil– in 2014. (I know I said “just,” as if it’s such an easy topic that a few hundred words with some pictures interspersed can do it justice; bear with me.)

Captain America

So for this post, let me make clear that I’m talking about heroism in my own life, and in the lives of others like me. I am not touching on those who actually physically fight for my right to say whatever I want on this blog; our soldiers are unquestionably heroes who cannot be thanked or praised enough– and whose situation I think the newest Captain America film does an excellent and heart-wrenching job of portraying. What I’d like to consider is all the rest of us: those who don’t in our daily lives encounter physical monsters and dragons in need of slaying.

What do you do when there is no black and white? When monsters wear masks, when dragons move in masquerade among us, when everything seems so unbearably grey? And even when there are black and white issues, as there will always be, what do you do when, the world being what it is, you can’t fight evil physically, and even your words seem (in the words of George Eliot) “in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible”?

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Well. I have never claimed to have all the answers (or even some of them). But what I will do, as I so often do when I am struggling to find an answer or some meaning in seeming meaninglessness, is turn to literature. One of my favorite series of books growing up was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. First of all, everyone should go read them right now. Second of all, this is just one of many quotes from the fifth (and last) novel in the series, spoken by the hero Taran:

“Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king– every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone. Once you told me that the seeking counts more than the finding. So, too, must the striving count more than the gain.”

These words ring as true today as they did when I was a child. There are so many more ways than just one to be a hero– thankfully! There are so many kinds of heroes and so many ways to be heroic, and I think they always involve some form of selflessness. It is so hard to be heroic in small ways– not to say that it’s not hard to be heroic in big ways too. They’re both difficult, just in different ways. I think what is most difficult about being heroic in “small” ways is that it involves fighting against intangible evil. And unfortunately, I am so often (and sadly so easily) discouraged by intangible evil. How do we strive against that which we cannot see? How do we know we are effecting change if we can’t even see what we are fighting?

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

I don’t have an answer. Not more of one than simply to say that I do believe that daily acts of kindness are just as important to stem the tide of darkness as are physical battles. How to remember this in the midst of getting bogged down in the living of day-to-day life, I continue (and will continue) to struggle with. So to end today, I’d like to quote again, this time from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as a reminder that maybe the striving is what counts the most– maybe the refusal to yield to darkness, to keep chasing after light and compassion and empathy and goodness, matters most:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Of Wooden Swords, Strange Women Lyin’ in Ponds, and Chivalric Codes

I’m taking a bit of a break from what seems to be my recent trend in self-empowerment posts. While I was at the beach recently, I also went to a show of Medieval Times, and I’m fixing to speak on that because 1) It’s amazing, 2) Everyone should know about it, and 3) I can.

image

So if you don’t know what Medieval Times is or have never been to a show, let me illuminate the issue for you: Medieval Times is a dinner show where you sit around a big arena while you watch a version of a medieval tournament with knights on horseback, jousting, swordplay, trained horses, etc. You also eat as if you were in the Medieval Ages, which means no silverware. I realize as soon as I say Medieval Times, some people’s eyes glaze over with visions of painful versions of LARPing– I’ve seen said glazing happen myself. But I thumb my nose at such naysayers.

The shows vary according to location and when you go see them– they have to mix it up to keep it fresh, clearly. The show I went to consisted of a dinner with half a chicken (yes, half of a whole chicken), the best spare rib I’ve ever eaten, and some other things that my carnivore’s brain remembers less well since they were not straight-up meat. The show itself had trained horses performing a number of tricks (if you’ve ever heard of the Lipizzaner stallions, picture that), as well as an actual falconer and trained falcon hunting down his prey in the arena.

image

Retrieved from blog.visitnorthumberland.com

Then of course there was the actual tournament. We started off with some spear-throwing at targets, then some ring-catching on horseback (which means the knights ran their horses full-speed, their lances down, and tried to catch a teeny tiny ring on the end of their lances as they sped past). And then the jousting and sword fighting– on horseback and on foot. During all of which you are expected to cheer for the knight whose section you’re sitting in and boo all his opponents.

If you’re still not sold, then you’re missing out, but such is your right. But aside from championing Medieval Times and the need for everyone to go see a show, I do want to talk a little bit about chivalry because MEDIEVAL TIMES.

First off, I’m not advocating a return to the 11th century or the Dark Ages or anything like that. There were plenty of terrible things that thank goodness we don’t have to put up with any more. But as I screamed myself hoarse (I’m nothing if not an enthusiastic fan), I asked myself why this show appealed to me so much. Number one, swords.

Number two, (if I’m being honest), is that there’s something about it that’s like a UFC fight– lots of skills needed to make it good, violent, and appealing– only with swords, lances, axes, and flails.

Number three, it’s about honor and respect. *eye rolls from some* I know, I know, a bunch of men fighting each other with swords and shields, “the violence inherent in the system,” “strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords,” lobbed scimitars, and anything/everything else from Monty Python and the Holy Grail may not sound like much of a basis for honor and respect. There was plenty not worthy of respect or admiration in the Middle Ages. But guess what. You could say the exact same thing about today’s world. There’s something to be said for the ideal of a man’s word being his pledge, for the ideal of the stronger or more well-advantaged taking care of the weaker or less privileged (I mean here individually, not governmentally – but that’s another post), for there being a code. And by code, I don’t mean figuratively. I mean literally, the code of the five chivalric virtues: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Clearly, this is all incredibly idealized, but it’s also from a time when such things were held up as a paragon of behavior and not as subjects of mockery and ridicule.

Sir Galahad: The Quest of the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad: The Quest of the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

Number four, it appeals to me because it hearkens back to when we were all kids and let our imaginations run wild. I saw little boys running around Medieval Times with wooden swords and shields, fighting imagined monsters; I saw little girls throughout the audience who were named Queens of the Tournament by their respective knights and giggled and blushed down to their tiptoes. There’s something here that appeals to us on a fundamental level, and I say this without distinction to gender– we want to be heroes, slay dragons, be the princess, kill the bad guy, do the rescuing and also be rescued, be loved and valued and part of something that goes beyond just us. Is it too much of a stretch to say all this just from watching a little girl get crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

So, today’s life lessons from Medieval Times:

1) You’re gonna get beat. Nobody wins everything all the time. Welcome to life.

2) When you do get beat or miss the mark, the worst thing you can do is just stop.

3) A man being chivalrous towards a woman doesn’t mean he doesn’t think the woman can do something (i.e., open a door). It’s a sign of respect, and a woman accepting such an action is to return that respect.

4) Don’t believe anyone who tells you dragons don’t exist. They’re wrong.

5) Don’t believe anyone who tells you dragons can’t be beaten. Again, wrong.

Well, perhaps this was more self-empowerment of sorts. Shocking. That’s all for today.

-Hannah the First, self-proclaimed Queen of Love and Beauty

Retrieved from the Texarkana Entertainment Blog

Retrieved from the Texarkana Entertainment Blog