Showing posts with label the Bible. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the Bible. Show all posts

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Sailing on The Dark Frigate

The 1924 Newbery medalist, The Dark Frigate, is about a young sailor named Philip Marsham, and his adventures and misadventures on land and sea. His father, a sea captain, has lost his life at sea, and nineteen-year-old Philip shortly thereafter loses what money he inherited when forced to flee his dead father’s promised wife’s pub after a mishap with somebody else’s gun. Penniless but undaunted he wanders the roads of England, thinks of becoming a farmer, falls in with a kindly Scottish smith, a madman, and then a couple of vagabond seamen. He glimpses his estranged grandparents, becomes engaged to a pretty bar maid, and duels with a gamekeeper before signing on to a ship called the Rose of Devon. And this is only in the first seventy pages. Crewing on the Rose of Devon means more adventures involving storms and pirates — which as one would expect leads in turn to more adventures yet.

Lloyd Alexander, in his 1971 introduction to The Dark Frigate, wrote that Charles Boardman Hawes “learned the sailor’s life from seafarers in Boston and Gloucester; from incredibly detailed research into ships’ logs, curious old volumes, and accounts of long-forgotten days” and also that Dawes considered the King James Bible “the greatest literary achievement of all time”. I haven’t a doubt of either statement. Both Dawe’s depth of research and biblical literary aesthetic are readily apparent from every page of this book.

The dialogue, the descriptions, the characters and the narrative all come across as authentically gritty and evocative with never a single nod to any popular conception of what seventeenth century seafaring life was like, such as a pirate-uttered “Yarrrr!” In writing The Dark Frigate, Charles Boardman Hawes managed to create that rarity in historical novels — one that is remarkably free of elements that date its actual time of writing. When I reviewed the 1923 Newbery winner, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle which is set in the 1840s, I claimed that it was unmistakably a 1920s novel. The Dark Frigate, which is set in the 1650s, is a different animal altogether. If I did not know that it was originally published in 1923 I would have been at a loss to guess its publication date. I would definitely have known that it was a historical novel and not written in the seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries, but my estimated date of its writing might have fallen anywhere between 1850 and 1970. I can only hope I would at least have placed it in the twentieth century.

The Dark Frigate also does indeed echo the King James Version of the Bible in its literary tone. The KJV, originally published in 1611, would have made a fantastic resource for someone trying to recreate seventeenth-century diction and prose. But The Dark Frigate resembles the KJV Bible in another way that I am not convinced is so positive — in a certain spareness of its narrative. There is little if any exploration of characterization or internal conflict. The Dark Frigate is strictly a “by their works ye shall know them” affair. Characters are sketched out with flat, one-line descriptions such as “the woman had a bitter temper and a sharp tongue” or “Tom Jordon was an ugly customer when his temper was up and hot, but no man to nurse a grudge” and by what they say or do. Granted, there is so much action and the pace of events is so fast Dawes could barely have found room for things like internal monologues or extended conversations even if he had wanted to. And the characterizations are quite good so far as they go. Dawes paints no sentimental portraits of any of his cast, whether they be pirates and barmaids or gentlefolk and judges. There are no simple jolly souls or purely evil figures, his ruthless pirates do not have hearts of gold, and almost all share the rough humour and shrewdness a brutish environment engenders in all those who survive it.

However, as good as The Dark Frigate is as a story of adventure and as an evocative historical novel, I can’t help feeling that it lacks a certain depth that would have come from better characterization and more internal conflict. Though this may just be my contemporary sensibilities or personal tastes getting the better of me. Perhaps this only means Charles Boardman Hawes was better at entering into another time than I, but it could also mean that he failed to take me with him.

Friday, 29 December 2006

2006, In Review

New Year’s Eve is approaching, I’d like to review something thematically in keeping with the occasion, and my spent 2006 planner is sitting conveniently on my desk, so here goes. Perhaps I should begin by saying this planner cannot be named or described too exactly as the publishing company that employs me produced it, and there would be both conflict of interest and personal security issues in my being specific enough that it could be identified. Ahem.

I hope I can safely say it wasn’t the planner for me. Not that it isn’t a handsome, nicely designed volume in its own right, and I’m not just writing that because I’ve helped edit it in the past and/or could be fired for publicly criticizing my company’s product. The planner is black-covered and gold-lettered, has gold and black satin ribbons for marking one’s place, has a lot of reference material at the back, and at 8.5” x 11” looked weighty and impressive on my desk all year. But then weightiness and impressiveness weren’t qualities I particularly needed or wanted in a planner. I take public transit and need a planner that isn’t a chore in itself to carry. And then this planner is designed to be used at one’s workplace, whereas I needed one geared to organizing my activities outside of work. I can see it being exactly right for a number of busy professionals — thousands of them, in fact. Planners are a very individual preference.

But it’s typical of me, and indicative of a larger issue in my life, that I never do find quite the right planner for me, the one that will help me feel more in control of my life, to stop me from frittering away time and procrastinating (actual Freudian-style typo: procasturbating), to accomplish more, to keep me from neglecting or forgetting to do things I very much want to do. Or failing that, I’d like FOR THE LOVE OF GOD to at least find one that lets me look at a week at a glance, gives me some actual room to scribble more than a few things down AND still fits into my already bulging shoulder bag. This past year I wound up carrying a little plastic-covered calendar style planner because the weighty black one had to stay at home, a memo pad because the little calendar had no room in which I could write, and also keeping a planning notebook because I needed some place to write down brainstorming lists and research notes on the best roofers/internet service providers/books to read/Christmas present ideas. Etc.

Again, it’s typical of me that for 2007 I’ve bought a new planner, hoping that both the planner and the year will be a better one than the one past or if not, that I can at least condense my oragnizational system from four notebooks to two. But then this is always the appeal of new planners and notebooks. I can’t be the only person who has a notebook fetish, who lusts after those beautiful covers and crisp blank pages and winds up giving away several journals for Christmas every year simply because I wanted an excuse to buy them. (As was the case with the exquisite embroidered pale green satin one I gave to my seventeen-year-old niece this year – I wanted to buy it and it matched my niece’s eyes, so she got it.) Those rafts of gorgeous notebooks and planners one sees in the stores must go somewhere. The appeal of these planners and notebooks is the promise of renewal, of a fresh start, of new things and new days to come. It’s an act of faith to buy one because it presumes that one will be living each and every one of those days named within. And, if one is a writer, there’s always the hope that the words one will write within will actually be worthy of their beautiful setting.

I don’t get a sense of this promise as I flip back through my spent planners. Instead I get a sense of the past as a thing apart from my memories and overall impressions of it. Perhaps I find I went out more often or was more productive than I thought, or perhaps less. Perhaps I discover that I wrote in some item to be done, such as signing up for a yoga class or doing some home improvement task, see that I scheduled it again and again before it finally disappeared, but realize it doesn’t matter now that I’d rather take kickboxing and have moved. This particular year I find the gold ribbon is stalled in mid-November, because I was embroiled in all sorts of real estate and moving craziness and was too overwhelmed to even be able to try to calmly order my days. This bird’s eye sense of the past — even my own past, which I should know intimately — as something significantly different from my conception of it isn’t as exciting as the sense of anticipation I get from a new notebook, but it’s probably more instructive.

The planner is a relatively modern invention. I don’t suppose it is much more than a century old, though people were certainly jotting down their daily minutiae long before that. It’s something we designed to help us cope with lives that have become more varied and hectic (though not harder overall) than they were two hundred years ago. Not that the medieval peasant whose daily to-do list might have been a one item “plant turnips” wouldn’t have had some conception of the more primal motivation that underlies our dependency on planners, and BlackBerries, and whatever other forms the planner will take in future. Like most adaptations, they help us cope with currently existing circumstances without necessarily making us any happier or more fulfilled in the larger sense than people have been in past millenniums. Nearly two thousand years ago Paul of the Bible was writing, “That which I would not do, I do; and that which I would do, I do not”, and that is a universal, eternal human lament which even the most beautifully designed Moleskine will never do more than assauge. Not that this realization for one minute dampens my ravenous desire for the said Moleskines.