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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.
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A Thousand Miles for Love

22 Nov

“I was quite taken out of myself and vowed a vow there to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved.”
~ Hilaire Belloc

Read more…

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3 Fairy Tales with Not So Tidy Endings

4 Nov

“For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike,
whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.”
~ George Macdonald

“And they all lived happily ever after.” It’s the fairy tale equivalent of “riding off into the sunset,” and it bespeaks a neat wrapping up of loose ends at the end of a harrowing yarn. The bad guys, vanquished; the good guys, triumphant. The village is spared, and the populace rejoices in the good fortunes of the hero and heroine who risked all to come to the rescue.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from fairy tales – or, perhaps, it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect from decades of exposure to Disney-fied versions of fairy tales. Keep in mind that Disney is a business, and businesses seek to sell us stuff. Ambiguity, agony, and angst don’t sell as well as happy endings. From detergent and diapers to fairy tales and family films, it’s much easier to hawk what people are already clamoring for, and it seems that we prefer tidy narratives for our kids.

So much for the modern, free-market approach to fairy tales. In previous ages, it was not so. Here’s a few examples from Victorian times:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

George MacDonald wrote lots of books, but he’s especially remembered for his fairy tales. They unfold somewhat haphazardly and erratically – as if they’re printed versions of bedtime stories Macdonald made up on the spot for his children. (If you’re a dad and have attempted to do the same with your own little ones, you know what I mean.)

This particular MacDonald classic is noteworthy because of its influence on one J.R.R. Tolkien, who populated his own fantasy fiction with MacDonald-esque goblins: malevolent and seemingly irredeemable creatures who reside in the underworld of caves and mines. In MacDonald’s story, the goblins are so base that they can’t even “bear singing” because they “can’t sing themselves…and they don’t like other people to sing.” Nonetheless, they set their sights on securing a foothold in the overland world of men so they kidnap the Princess Irene as a bride for Harelip, their goblin prince.

Yet their schemes are thwarted by a young miner named Curdie who is humble and heroic and heedless of danger. Armed with song and his trusty mattock, and assisted by Irene’s magical great-great-grandmother, Curdie frees the Princess, who in turn comes to Curdie’s rescue after he’s captured, and the goblins are thoroughly routed in the end. When the king, Irene’s father, is apprised of all these events, he offers Curdie a royal appointment in his retinue, and the stage seems set for Curdie and Irene to grow closer as they grow older, with nuptial bliss on the horizon in due course.

What happens instead is that Curdie, an only child, opts to stay behind with his parents in their mountaintop home. “But Curdie,” his mother tells him, “why shouldn’t you go with the king? We can get on very well without you.”

“But I can’t get on very well without you,” the boy replies. “The king is very kind, but I could not be half the use to him that I am to you.”

More surprising is the fact that the evil goblins turn out to be redeemable after all. “Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts,” MacDonald narrates at the end, “and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even with the miners.” Perhaps they even learned to enjoy singing in time.

The Princess and Curdie (1883)

This is MacDonald’s sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, and it picks up the story with Curdie on the mountain at home with his folks. Now that his adventures with the goblins have receded, Curdie seems to sink into a moral indolence. Finally, he has a crisis of conscience when he shoots an arrow at a pigeon for no good reason. “He had done the thing that was contrary to gladness; he was a destroyer!” MacDonald writes. “He was not the Curdie he had been meant to be!”

Almost as an atonement for his transgression, he goes on a quest to locate Princess Irene and save her father, the king, from a slow death by poison at the hands of his corrupt court. Irene’s great-great-grandmother provides Curdie with special powers of discernment as well as a mutant minder, Lina, who serves as companion and protector on the road.

As they travel, Curdie and Lina are joined by numerous other mutant creatures, and by the time they reach the king’s city, Gwyntystorm, they are an intimidating band. Through artifice and force, Curdie and Lina gain entrance to the castle, come to the aid of Irene and her father, and oust the traitorous courtiers and servants. The king’s enemies enlist the support of a rival nation to do battle against their own homeland, but with the aid of Curdie’s monstrous crew, the king is victorious and re-establishes his authority over Gwyntystorm and his realm.

At this point, the promise of the previous Princess tale is realized, and the now mature Irene is wed to the valiant Curdie. After the king dies, the young royal couple assumes rule over the kingdom, and a season of peace and prosperity ensues. Yet, Curdie and Irene, it turns out, never have children of their own, and when they themselves die, the kingdom falls into ruin. The king appointed by the people becomes consumed by greed, the people themselves revert to their wicked ways, and the royal city itself eventually collapses into obscurity. “All around spreads a wilderness of wild deer,” reads the book’s last lines, “and the very name of Gwyntystorm had ceased from the lips of men.”

Not exactly the “happily ever after” ending you’d have expected following the successful reign of King Curdie and Queen Irene. Still, MacDonald’s ending projects backward a poignancy and realism over the entire two-volume work that gives the reader pause. Were Curdie’s and Irene’s efforts for naught if their kingdom disappeared? Does the value of our present actions depend on their long-term impact and how they build our legacies?

The Little Lame Prince (1875)

I’ve been reading MacDonald’s stories for decades, but I’d never heard of this fable by MacDonald’s contemporary, Dinah Maria Craik, until I came across it recently at home. It was a night of insomnia, and I went hunting among our stacks for something to lull my overactive brain into slumber – something light, something diverting. Maybe something new.

I saw the discordant title on the white Watermill Classic spine, and I paused. “Lame? Prince?” I thought. “Now there’s a kid’s story I don’t know.” I grabbed it, headed back upstairs, and settled in for what I thought would be a chapter or two before I nodded off.

Craik’s tale kept me up for a while, and then again the next couple nights. It’s a wonderful story, and most certainly in the vein of MacDonald’s works, with odd twists and turns that keep you locked in until the very end. It’s the story of poor little Prince Dolor whose mother died shortly after his birth, and who himself suffered a crippling injury on the day of his baptism. After the king dies as well, an unscrupulous and scheming uncle arranges for the disabled young prince to be shipped off to exile in an isolated tower, and it seems unlikely that Dolor will ever come into his royal inheritance.

The prince’s godmother, however, has fairylike powers, and she delivers an enchanted cloak to Dolor that enables him to escape his exile and travel about the countryside. Eventually, after his uncle dies, Dolor is restored to his birthright and assumes the throne, and his kingdom is restored to its former glory.

But what of his lameness? Doesn’t the godmother heal Dolor’s infirmity? It’s not even suggested as a possibility. Instead, throughout the story, the prince’s lameness is a given, and it’s part of his nobility that he’s able to rise above it and rule with equanimity.

First, because, accepting his affliction as inevitable, he took it patiently; second, because, being a brave man, he bore it bravely, trying to forget himself, and live out of himself, and in and for other people. Therefore other people grew to love him so well that I think hundreds of his subjects might have been found who were almost ready to die for their poor lame king.

Dolor never marries in Craik’s story, and so, like Curdie and Irene, the royal blood line is interrupted. However, Dolor takes on a distant cousin. a descendant of his treacherous uncle, as a protégé, and by the end of the tale Dolor peacefully turns over the reins of power to him. The retiring, crippled king then exhorts his people to follow their new leader, produces his enchanted cloak, and slips away.

It’s not exactly riding off into the sunset, but it’s satisfying all the same. And it’s a narrative template of perseverance, virtue, and selflessness that not only enthralls but edifies.

Who wouldn’t want their kids to have that?
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A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

4 Sep


“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere….”
~ Georges Bernanos

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Fitting Our Journey to God’s Map

10 Aug

“You must have a map, no matter how rough.
Otherwise you wander all over the place.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Read more…

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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

15 Jul

The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.
~ G.K. Chesterton

“Just what kind of movies do you like?”

We were sitting around the dinner table discussing cinematic tastes. Katharine, my youngest, was being a bit evasive; Benedict, my oldest, was drawing her out.

Kath paused, looked straight at Ben, and then blurted, “I like murders.”

Maybe not the answer you’d expect from a 12-year-old, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been treating my kids to a steady summer diet of sleuthing and homicide. First it was a DVD season of “Murder She Wrote” from the library, and then on to Agatha Christie – Miss Marple, yes, but especially the ITV version of her Belgian eccentric, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet). His accent and fastidiousness have grown on us, along with the wide-eyed, perpetual bewilderment of his sidekick, Captain Hastings.

Our routine involves popping in the disc, getting settled with our snacks, and then launching into speculation as soon as the principals start showing up on the screen. Often, I’m trying to finish up the dinner dishes as the proceedings commence. “Is there a corpse yet?” I’ll call out from the kitchen.

“Nope, not yet,” Kath or somebody calls back. “But hurry – there’ll be one soon!”

By definition, murder mysteries will have a victim – at least one, sometimes more. The murder method also varies: a stabbing here, an electrocution there, gunshots, poisons, blunt trauma – who knows? Regardless of how or how many, death sets the stage – it’s the unquestioned given, the backdrop before which the narrative unfolds.

Yet, the TV murder mysteries we enjoy don’t involve anything grisly or shocking. These aren’t slasher flicks, so the deed itself is a muted part of the drama. When it’s over and done with, we get to the real fun: joining up with the sleuths to solve the crime. We gasp and laugh, talk to the screen and each other, and amend our conjectures along the way – sometimes twice, sometimes more. By tale’s end, the family score is tallied – who was right, who was wrong – and we head off to bed.

Sweet dreams!

That might sound a bit weird, but my follow-up with Kath after dinner confirmed my intuition that our familial enjoyment of the genre was pretty healthy. “Why do you like murder?” I asked.

“I like guessing who’s going to be killed – and who’s the killer,” Kath explained. “I don’t like killing, but I like figuring it out – it’s a puzzle, and the obvious ones are never right.”

In this, Kath instinctively paid tribute to Chesterton’s observation that “mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes,” and kids love jokes. A good joke, like a good mystery, fools us. We fall for an unseen juxtaposition or association that both surprises and satisfies.

Chesterton further argues that a mystery is like

a toy, a thing that children ‘pretend’ with…. From this it follows that the reader, who is a simple child and therefore very wide awake, is conscious not only of the toy but of the invisible playmate who is the maker of the toy, and the author of the trick.

And since the “innocent child is very sharp and not a little suspicious,” a good mystery creator will gift his audience an experience that simultaneously confounds and confirms. It’ll make sense in the end, no matter how bewildering the preceding series of events. “The climax must not be only the bursting of a bubble,” Chesterton insists, “but rather the breaking of a dawn.”

This enlightenment was referenced by Katharine in a further reflection on her murder mystery enthusiasm. “And I like seeing the bad guy get caught,” she said, adding this astute assessment: “It’s always money – always greed. I want money, too, but I’m not going to kill for it.” Although her nuanced insight regarding mammon and avarice made me beam with paternal pride, I was especially alert to her appreciation of justice served. Unlike some modern thrillers and horror films, we expect – no, we demand – that traditional murder mysteries have a happy ending: the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys are held accountable.

Here, too, Kath’s comments made me think of Chesterton, but this time it was his splendid defense of fairy tales. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination,” he writes. “What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” There’s a big difference between fairy tales and mysteries, I know, but I think there’s an edifying overlap between St. George and Hercule Poirot. Whether it’s a monster or a murderer, the graphic depiction of its sure defeat reinforces the idea, in Chesterton’s words, “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

By accompanying our teens and pre-teens into the moral universe of murder mysteries, whether on the screen or on the page, we foster their grasp of important catechetical truths: that God brings order out of chaos, that good triumphs over evil, and that death is never, ever the end of the story.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

24 Jun

“There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

“When are we going to get rid of some of these books?” is the complaint I hear from time to time at my house. “We’ll never read them all.” Yes, I know, that’s the point! There will always be something to read, always a new find, always something to surprise and delight.

I hear that complaint a lot, especially from my older kids. They grew up with our bibliochaotic interior decorating scheme, but they’ve come to appreciate that it’s nowhere near normative or typical – that it’s not even an infrequent alternative. Most of their friends don’t live with overflowing bookcases in every room; most families of their acquaintance don’t double-shelve their volumes to accommodate them all. Actually, even the word “most” there is generous. The truth is that their domestic experience of bookish squalor is pretty extraordinary.

But no apologies here. I’ve always been a big believer in quantity over quality when it comes to our home library. That’s the essential approach of big academic libraries, isn’t it? And the Library of Congress? So why should it be any different at home? It seems like our family book collections shouldn’t just be showcases for favorites, but more like dense jungles of the unfamiliar and surprising in which our kids can get lost, explore, and make discoveries of their own. A decent library less a museum than a magical meeting place.

And that goes for the grown-ups as well.

Case in point: I was rooting around in the living room for something or other recently, and there in the stacks was a bright orange picture book I’d never seen before – or else I don’t remember ever seeing it before. I snagged it off the shelf: The Saint and His Bees (2013), written by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg. Where did it come from? How did we acquire it? Who knows, but here it was in my hands – providence! Serendipity!

The magic caught me and I dove in.

The book relates the tale of St. Modomnoc, a 6th-century Irish monk who studied in Wales under St. David, who put the young novice in charge of the community’s hives. Modomnoc’s enthusiasm for his vocation was such that he eagerly acquiesced to David’s directive and threw himself into his apiary role – something his skittish confreres in the Welsh community were all too happy to surrender to him.

The young monk and his bees developed a strong mutual affection, and when it came time for Modomnoc to return to his Irish monastery, the bees insisted on accompanying him. According to Jackson’s retelling, St. David gave way to the inevitable and happily bestowed his blessing on the departing Modomnoc and his buzzing friends. It’s the legendary flipside to St. Patrick’s role in ridding the island of snakes, for Modomnoc is credited with introducing the honey-producing insects to the Emerald Isle.

Reading through The Saint and His Bees was time well spent. It’s an edifying tale well told, and Brandenburg’s rough-cut illustrations capture the story’s primitive monastic ethos perfectly. Besides, I’d never heard of St. Modomnoc before, and I’m anxious to share his history with my beekeeping friends. Moreover, I made a mental note about this saint’s fearlessness in obedience and embrace of duty – and the unseen ramifications of such courage. With that in mind, I decided to track down a bit more about this new holy friend.

Since I was in a library frame of mind, I turned to the stacks instead of a screen, and I pulled down David Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5th ed., 2003). Not surprisingly, the entry on St. Modomnoc confirmed the basic outline of Jackson’s narrative, but there was no additional information – and so my eye wandered on the page.

More providence – more serendipity. More magic and meeting.

First, my attention was drawn to St. Modan, the entry immediately preceding St. Modomnoc. Modan, too, was a Celtic monk that hailed from the 6th century, but his life centered on Scotland instead of Ireland and Wales. It seems that St. Modan was given to long hours of prayer and solitude, but that didn’t prevent his being pressed into abbatial service at Dryburgh. He also had a knack for coaxing the rains during times of drought – which is ironic since his name means “little flame.”

Modan’s meteorological miracles led to some confusing associations with an 8th-century Scottish saint and bishop of the same name. The latter’s feast is observed on November 14, and on that date in Fraserburgh, according to Farmer’s Dictionary, “his silver head-relic was formerly carried in procession to bring down rain or improve the weather in other ways.”

Not exactly the honey-coated legacy of St. Modomnoc, but holy beggars can’t be choosers.

After Modan, I scanned the page for other curious hagiographic tidbits, and I came across the story of St. Mochta, another Irish abbot, but this time from the 5th century. “Reputed to be of British origin and to have become a disciple of Patrick in Ireland,” Farmer writes, “he is supposed to have been educated and consecrated bishop in Rome.” Not only was Mochta a close collaborator of St. Patrick, he is said to have founded a celebrated monastery at Louth.

But what I found especially diverting was a bit of Mochta lore from Farmer – that the saint “lived for 300 years because he doubted the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs.” Now, whether that actually happened or not is less important than the preservation of the suggestion that it had happened. I couldn’t help smiling when I read it. “It would be just like God to do something like that,” I thought to myself. “And it’s so great that the Irish would keep such a yarn alive over the centuries.” It’s an example of the kind of weirdness in our traditions that I’ve always found invigorating as a Catholic convert – not only diverting, but also reassuring. A religion of 300 yearlong object lessons, not to mention Pied Piper beekeepers and rainmaking relics, is a religion that enraptures and enthralls, and can accommodate even the likes of me.

The same goes for a voluminous pandemonium. How else would I have met such fascinating saints? We are blessed in our bookish bedlam.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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