The Chronicle of a Thousand Books

Being the Chronicle of a Thousand Books, kept faithfully and diligently by thy humble servant, in this most excellent repository of worthy works, the marvellous and justly famous Library of Mare Caelorum. "He who measures his wealth in books shall never be robbed of it, not by fire nor knaves, if only he should preserve them in his memory."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Rebel Worlds

"Flandry stayed behind a while. No particular girl for me, ever, he reflected, unless Hugh McCormac has the kindness to get himself killed. Maybe then -

Could I arrange it somehow - if she'd never know I had - could I? A daydream of course. But supposing the opportunity came my way ... could I?

I can't honestly say." - The Rebel Worlds, Poul Anderson (Signet, 1969)

Poul Anderson occupies a fairly revered place in the hierarchy of science fiction authors. Unlike many writers whose works are placed on a gold-and-marble plinth in the halls of the genre's collective memory, Anderson isn't enshrined because of heavy intellectual themes, or high-minded seriousness, or - heavens forbid - his philosophy. He occupies a place of honor because he knows how to invent a universe and tell a story - without either collapsing under their own weight.

The Rebel Worlds relates an episode in the mid-career of Anderson's hedonistic clandestine agent, Dominic Flandry (now a Lieutenant Commander), in the service of the vast, glorious and corrupt Terran Empire. Dispatched to prevent or subdue an uprising by a reformist admiral caught in a subtle web of plots and intrigues, Flandry's powers - of persuasion, perception and manipulation - are tested to a high degree of strain, and his task is further complicated when he falls for the admiral's wife, who is the unwitting key to the entire rebellion.

In the hands of an author less instinctive than Anderson, this book (and the entire universe it is based on) might have fallen as flat as the dozens of imitators the Flandry stories have spawned. But Anderson knew how to get and hold a reader's attention - drop them in the middle of the enormous clockwork of the Terran Empire, tie them to the cloak-tails of the decadent and highly-skilled Flandry, and keep the pace at cruising speed at all times.

Flandry emerged from his reverie. His cab was slanting toward Intelligence headquarters. He took a hasty final drag on his cigaret, pitched it in the disposer, and checked his uniform. He preferred the dashing dress version, with as much elegant variation as the rather elastic rules permitted, or a trifle more. However, when your leave has been cancelled after a few mere days Home, and you are ordered to report straight to Vice Admiral Kheraskov, you had better arrive in plain white tunic and trousers ...

Sackcloth and ashes would be more appropriate, Flandry mourned. Three, count 'em, three gorgeous girls, ready and eager to help me celebrate my birth week, starting tomorrow at Everest House with a menu I spent two hours planning; and we'd've continued as long as necessary to prove that a quarter century is less old than it sounds. And now this!

Anderson's particular gift was to create an invented, living history of his Empire, as well as the generosity to fill it with vibrant and vivid detail. Too many authors, particularly in science fiction (but also notably in recent historical fiction) treat the dramatic backdrop of their worlds as necessary evils, and parcel out the landscape in gritty, barely-digestible expository lumps that exist solely to justify the plot or move it along. The Flandry tales treat the 'backstory' as a narrative in its own right, filled with the long and fascinating digressions that readers love. Anderson's Empire is on par with the Galaxy of Asimov's Foundation, but is far more coherent, detailed and self-consistent than the "atmospheric" setting of those novels.

Hustle, bustle, hurry, scurry, run, run, run, said his glumness. Work, for the night is coming - the Long Night, when the Empire goes under and the howling peoples camp in its ruins. Because how can we remain forever the masters, even of our insignificant spatter of stars, on the fringe of a galaxy so big we'll never know a decent fraction of it? Probably never more than this sliver of one spiral arm that we've already seen....

Our ancestors explored farther than we in these years remember. When hell cut loose and their civilization seemed about to fly into pieces, they patched it together with the Empire. And they made the Empire function. But we ... we've lost the will. We've had it too easy for too long. And so the Merseians on our Betelgeusean flank, the wild races everywhere else, press inward.... Why do I bother? Once a career in the Navy looked glamorous to me. Lately, I've seen its backside. I could be more comfortable doing almost anything else.

The Rebel Worlds is a fine example of Anderson's light, fast - and sometimes wry - space opera handiwork, that can be started and finished in a lazy afternoon. The adventures of Flandry, who has been often compared to a James Bond among the stars, don't disappoint as undemanding, guilty pleasure reading.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Medieval Centuries

"The new king, Charles, was an even more successful ruler than his predecessors. Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus) grasped his opportunities firmly; he destroyed the Lombards and enriched himself and the papacy with Italy north of Rome; he stormed south beyond the Pyrenees, north to convert the Saxons to Christianity and subjection to the Franks, east to absorb the already Christian Bavaria, farther still to shatter the Avars and create a marcher dependency in Carinthia. Master of the West, master of the Church and the pope, Charles was the reincarnation of the masterful emperors of the Roman Empire.... A grateful pope on Christmas Day, 800, crowned Charlemagne emperor in St. Peter's, Rome. This action, like Charles's ambitious attempts to govern his vast dominions, was to have important consequences later. For the moment it is sufficient to stress one point: the Carolingian Empire was ephemeral." - The Medieval Centuries, Denys Hay (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964)

Your Chronicler has a special fondness for this book, having a millennial theme in common with it. As your servant seeks to catalogue and preserve a thousand books, so too did Denys Hay attempt to chronicle and illuminate a thousand years that for far too long have been known as the Dark Ages.

The "Middle Ages" of history, the interregnum between Rome's final collapse to Renaissance, haven't suffered from a lack of attention by historians, except perhaps in recent decades, where the study and practice of historical scholarship have followed contemporary fashions and trends. (This has been a mixed blessing, in that while comparatively little of weight has been written lately on this critical epoch in Western civilization, active neglect by certain history departments may have prevented irreparable damage from being inflicted on this field of study.)

Rarely, though, does a capable scholar succeed in tackling the Medieval period in a single, concise, engaging volume. Rarer still is the historian who doesn't succumb spectacularly to either of the twin plagues of contemporary scholarship - slavish devotion to either economics or psychology (and its viral new offspring, gender, racial or sexual politics) as the ultimate judges and juries of the period. In some rabidly anti-Western, "anti-dead white male" history faculties, Denys Hay might have faced an academic inquisition for heresy to the prevailing conventions of the discipline. He would certainly have been found guilty of assembling a superb and insightful introductory study of possibly the most interesting, longest and most difficult-to-fathom era of Western civilization.

The Medieval Centuries traces surviving echoes of the Roman hegemony, from the final throes of barbarian invasions and consolidations, to the age of land-based militocracy and the beginnings of modern money-based economics and polity, with careful regard to the role of flourishing faith. Hay's lens focuses mostly on the political landscape of the period, but his survey is unobscured by any pet theory or cherished ideology. Of note, his book is blessedly free of the obligatory, Marxist-inspired perpetual class warfare view of the feudal days of the Middle Ages, and deftly deposes current mythology by turning conventional wisdom on its head with deeply-researched findings.

Servitude was undoubtedly a harsh condition ... Yet the relationship we have been considering had compensations. Serfdom, to begin with, was not slavery. The serf had a right to his holding, he had a family which could inherit it and was, in practice, not at the mercy of his lord.... Moreover the lord had no social or economic inducement to maltreat his service tenants. The land he possessed was useless without their labor; in an economy designed to produce a sufficiency rather than a surplus there was little incentive to exploitation. Nor were the peasantry in the ninth and tenth centuries separated from their masters by an unbridgeable gulf of manners. The peasant's way of life was for long not vastly different from his master's. Both lived on a narrow economic margin; the lord's house and the peasant's hovel would today be regarded as almost equally squalid, both being overcrowded, insanitary and comfortless.... These stabilizing factors go far to account for the marked absence of social disturbances in the early Middle Ages.... The serf of the ninth century differed from the serf of the late twelfth in that at the later date his services were much less onerous and his money payments much more so than they had been earlier.

Hay also applies his critical eye to the question of the role of the Church in the evolution of medieval Europe. He astutely gauges the influence of faith in the political development of the times - but he does not exclusively subscribe to the cynical popular notion that religion was solely 'politics by other means'.

There is some truth in the paradox that the only 'State' in the Middle Ages, the only universal authority remotely comparable to the sovereign bodies of later ages, was the Church.

Such an identification of 'Church' and 'State' cannot but appear today as a monstrous aberration. At the time of which we are writing, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the very terms themselves had hardly been adumbrated and were certainly not antithetical. Any imperialist would readily have admitted that 'Church' and 'State' were one: his argument would have been that the emperor was God's vice-regent, the custodian of Christendom. It was, however, the later resistance to 'caesaro-papism', papal theocracy, which gradually led men to define a
respublica, a civitas, a 'State' in opposition to the 'Church'.

Throughout the book,
Hay makes clear that the church-state dynamic that defined the medieval era, culminating in the rebirth of European civil society in the Renaissance and ultimately the modern era, would have been impossible had not the Church acted as midwife and 'mother' to the secular powers that matured to supplant it at the end of the thousand years of darkness, in the sense of both cultural identity, and political and administrative organization.

Every Church institution was by now in complete obedience to the pope.... From the headquarters of the Church went forth legates to carry papal programmes to the provinces....

This administrative development was watched with interest by contemporary kings, whose predecessors had in earlier days found much to copy from the more sophisticated methods of the papal
curia. By the thirteenth century the gap had if anything widened between papal administration and that of even the most advanced countries in the West. Yet the over-all business of the kings of France or England was to grow with astonishing speed in the fourteenth century and later, while their revenues were vastly greater than that of the Roman Church.

Hay's description of the tipping of the scales from the early medieval centuries, which saw a unified Church and the fractured inheritance of barbarian usurpers of Roman lands, to the predawn light of the Renaissance which saw the Church diminished and dominated by the rising secular powers that later founded our own modern era, makes for brisk and excellent reading.

As a straightforward and insightful narrative of a very convoluted and fascinating time, The Medieval Centuries is a valuable first guidebook for newcomers to the period, and even for those frequent amateur explorers of the Middle Ages who, having dived headfirst into deep, scattered thickets and brambles of long-disappeared places and times, want a broader perspective of the landscape that birthed Charlemagne, St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention the modern nation-state.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Face in the Frost

"Unexplained noises are best left unexplained." The Face in the Frost, John Bellairs (Ace Science Fiction, 1969)

Sound advice, from John Bellairs' very whimsical and secretive wizard Prospero ("not the one you are thinking of, either," Bellairs tells us), to his stoic housekeeper Mrs. Durfey - and incidentally, a pretty good rule of thumb for fantasy writers in general, one that Bellairs adheres to faithfully and effectively in The Face in the Frost.

Good authors know that over-explaining is the death of storytelling, and John Bellairs was nothing if not a fellow who knew his work. He knew that readers like to use their imaginations, and despise stories that take us on a breathless, regimented forced-march. Many of us read to escape, and aren't willing to give up our time to a writer far too much in love with their own intricate plots, nor trade a mundane reality for a make-believe world that insists on controlling where our thoughts roam at all times.

The Face in the Frost, fortunately, doesn't fall into the complexity trap. It is a deeply satisfying and undemanding read. Bellairs sketches out just enough of the oddly funny and frightening world of the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom to help us form a picture, and relies on his matchless descriptive power to keep us wanting to see more. No need to lead us down the path, he simply maps it out and makes us want to follow it.

Anyone foolish enough to stand on Barren Tor in the booming wind of a certain wintry day in late October would have seen a box carriage scooting past below, like a black beetle. The Tor, a treeless 300-foot high hill shaped a little like a dog's tooth, was an isolated foothill of the unnamed range of peaks that bordered the Northern Highlands. Northerners did not name mountain ranges; they were afraid that doing so would wake the spirit of the mountains, the rock-buried elemental that had once split the Mitre, a strange double peak many miles to the south. Roger and Prospero, now many days' journey from the clockmaker's cottage, had passed the Mitre a week before: It was there they heard rumors of a War Council on the Feasting Hill.

Bellairs' storytelling gifts were many, and fully on display in The Face in the Frost, which I consider his finest book among a cohort of superb stories. He made his career as a successful children's or young adult's writer, it is true, but all of his books have the sly, clever, grown-up humor of a man who tells everyone he writes for kids, but is really writing for himself and for anyone else who wants to get lost in bramble-filled woods pursued by strange, gibbering creatures, or explore the houses of wizards with their anachronistic curios, haunted cellars and bedsteads with bassoons carved into the headposts.

Chief among his gifts is the humor Bellairs imbues in his characters, in this case, Prospero and his friend Roger Bacon (most probably the one you are thinking of), as they delve into the mystery of who is trying to kill the former through frighteningly powerful - if erratic - magic, and why.

"Well, I asked it how to make a brass wall to encircle England, and it said, 'Hah?' '
Brass wall,' I said, louder. 'B as in Bryophyta ...'"

"Bryophyta? Prospero asked.

"Yes," answered Roger testily, "mosses and liverworts."

"I hate liver," said Prospero.

"As well you might," said Roger in a quiet, despairing voice. "As well you might. But be that as it may, I spelled it out. R as in rotogravure process ..." He waited, but Prospero, who was biting down hard on his pipe to keep from laughing, did not interrupt. "... A as in Anaxagoras, S as in Symplegades, and S as in Smead Jolley, the only baseball player in history to make four errors on a single played ball.... At any rate, when I chanted the formula the next day, down by the seashore, I heard a sound like crumhorns and shawms, and behold! All of England was encircled with an eight-foot-high wall of Glass!"

"Glass? Plain, ordinary glass?"

"Yes, and not very good glass at that. Paper-thin and full of bubbles and pocks. The first boatload of Vikings that came over after the wall went up turned around and went back, because it was a sunny day and the wall glittered wonderfully. But the next day, when they came back, it was cloudy. One of them gave the wall a little tap with an ax, and it went tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, and now there is a lot of broken glass on the beach. Not long after that, I was asked to leave."

Prosper could not think of anything adequate to say, so he suggested that they break out the brandy and cigars.

Another Bellairs' touch is his longtime embrace of the old, scary connotations of magic. Mischief and horror - leavened by the hilarious or even just the buffoonish - loom large in the wizardly craft as practiced in the Kingdoms.

Prospero walked out to where the white shape was, and found that he was standing over a long flat stone, a grave marker covered with square chiseled letters in ragged rows. Some of the letters were filled with dirt, though the slab itself was amazingly clean - no bird droppings, no leaf stains or weather streaks. What the inscription said was this:

Under this stone we have placed the burnt body of Melichus the sorcerer. He did great wrong. May his soul lie here under this stone with his body and trouble us not.

"That is a terrible curse," said Prospero, looking at the quiet branches all around him. "I hope it did not come true, for his sake."

John Bellairs never achieved the fame of later authors who followed the trail he blazed - one thinks of the Lemony Snicket books, with their dark children's humor and mysterious twists, or the Harry Potter child-wizard phenomenon, that has ensnared kids and adults alike. Which is a grand pity, because his work (often illustrated by the magnificently weird Edward Gorey), surpasses both in simplicity and quality, in my opinion (and above all, in sympathy - for his characters and readers alike). Bellairs was telling stories, not building a "brand" or helping create a publishing empire.

Selfish readers (like myself) enjoy nothing better than a secret book known only to a handful of close henchmen and confidants. The knowledge that a favorite "undiscovered author" is still safe from the withering and unforgiving glare of popularity is a source of comfort and shared - if slightly guilty - delight. But Bellairs deserves far more than the relative obscurity that has been his reward up to now. I hope that when the readers of his Snicket and Potter godchildren finish those books, they'll trace their lineage and find the master in their ancestry.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Invisible Cities

"Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks - ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes - which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret; one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched, a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain ..." - Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (Harvest Books, 1978)

A cardinal virtue of reading fantasy as a child or young adult is that we're not yet familiar with the common patterns of storytelling. Even the most tired clich├ęs are fresh and new, as we're able to lose ourselves in the story, not yet burdened by the questionable gift of being able to anticipate what comes next in the formula or equation. As we get older, it becomes more and more impossible to maintain this wonderment. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, is the first fantasy I've come across in my adult life that easily recaptures this lost feeling of immersion.

Abandoning all pretense of plot, Calvino creates a diary of impossible places - an invented memoir of a hundred and more dream and nightmare cities colonized only by impressions, odd details, and ideas. The only characters are Marco Polo and his lord the Great Khan of the Mongols, the only dialogue is what passes between them after every few sketches.

"Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms.

'On the day when I know all the emblems,' he asked Marco, 'shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?'

And the Venetian answered: 'Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.'"

There is no story, just glimpses of enigmas. No resolution, just a succession of strange vistas punctuated by discursive conversations on illusions, that mean even less than the illusions themselves. No climax, just the vague outlines of a vast and limitless atlas, and a closing riddle of what lies beyond the white spaces on the maps.

Invisible Cities could easily be mischaracterized as a product of the so-called "magical realism" school - which, to my mind, is just a fancy, tarted-up name for one small variant of "serious" fantasy (otherwise known as pseudo-surrealism), before the broader genre became fashionable on its own terms, and in its own right. But that would do it and Calvino an injustice. The book is much more. It is an admirable attempt at an endless fable, and achieves the greatest goal of make-believe books: it gets the reader thinking about the world it created beyond the pages themselves.

Equipped by birth and upbringing to be an observer and outsider (he was a Protestant born in Cuba to Italian parents, and raised in Italy as a child), and seduced by utopian dreams in his adulthood (he was a partisan in the war, and later a communist, but left the party in 1957 due to the banal and murderous corruption of Stalinism), Calvino ably translated the impulse to escape that infused millions of Europeans after the war. (Refreshingly, for a former Red, this particular book doesn't suffer from the tint of his former politics.)

Instead of crossing the Atlantic like many of his countrymen, he chose emigration to worlds of invention, as his body of work testifies to. Invisible Cities lets even the most jaded reader become lost in the fantastic cityscapes, with complete unconcern for what "comes next", happily going along for the ride with no final destination in sight.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Beowulf in Prose

"I now would wish to hand over my armour to a son of mine, were it my luck to have had an heir of my body to come after me. I have reigned over this people for half a century, and there was not a king of any neighboring nation who dared to attack me with an army or to threaten me with war. The destiny allotted to me on earth I endured; what was mine I defended well. I did not pick quarrels nor swear false oaths. Though wounded to death, I can rejoice in all these things; because when life quits my body God cannot accuse me of the murder of my kin." - Beowulf, A Prose Translation (Penguin Classics, David Wright edition, 1957)

And with those words, Beowulf, King of the Geats, launched the pantheon of fantasy heroes in the English language. He was among the first to carve the epitaph of great adventurers from King Arthur (who belonged first to Wales before being annexed by the Anglo-Saxons, along with everything else) to Aragorn son of Arathorn (the creation of Tolkien, Beowulf's greatest champion in modern times), and a legion of others, up to our own day, where fantasy and the English language have both come into their own.

The valediction of the Slayer of Grendel and the Dragon's-Bane not only maps out the hazy boundaries of the shining land where heroes spring from - the dreams of hope and just reward for the brave and good - it also serves as the guidepost for all those who came after, following in the track of one of the earliest heroes who held destiny in his hands like an ornately runed blade, not content to be a plaything of the gods, as were their distant ancestors in Homer and Virgil.

So it could be fairly said that for all his piety and reverence of the Christian God, Beowulf was probably the first existential troublemaker in English literature - his "birth" possibly marks that pivotal moment when Heroic Man began to replace the Supernatural God as the focus of myth, legend and story, with far-reaching consequences that still echo today (and which range far outside the realm of fantasy). When his poet-biographer set quill to scroll, the pagan gods of old, displaced by the new God, were no longer the objects of wonder for a mankind hungry for tales and legends. But the Christian God didn't take their place in tales of the new age, having had His heyday in the Old Testament, and generally been silent in the stories of men following the New Testament, in which He was a mighty background character. (With the exception of portions of the wonderful literature of miracles and the lives of the saints.)

So the coming of the Christian era left a void in song and story. And since nature and mankind both abhor a vacuum, men were left to fill it themselves - and it fell to Beowulf to become the "lawgiver" of Anglo-Saxon fantasy, and its later English offspring.

All the hallmarks of the heroic figures that followed in English-language fantasy (today's descendant of the mythic tales of the Dark Ages) can be found in the prince of the Geats. He sets his will against the fate that everyone else accepts, he puts his trust in himself and his strength and skill, and doesn't care much about the ultimate outcome or personal consequences, or have much need for others. He would have recognized John Carter of Mars, Conan of Cimmeria, and thousands of others as own brothers. Tolkien, too, not only acknowledged the literary debt owed to this Scandinavian adventurer (see his "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics"), but close readers of the story will find a couple of pilfered gems that later found their setting in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I first heard the Beowulf myth in prose, sitting on the carpeted floor of an elementary school reading room, listening to our elderly and beloved storyteller. She had a vast collection of children's stories from around the world, and we would spend an hour a week in her charge - a wicked horde of unwashed third-graders who to my certain knowledge caused the breakdowns of at least two teachers - silent and utterly spellbound by the voice contained in this frail old woman. Even the most illiterate among us were moved by the story, and some even wept at Beowulf's funeral. Although her text wasn't elegant poetry, it got the point across.

The same can be said for David Wright's prose translation - inelegant in places, but simple, and the heart of the story isn't lost. He even achieves part of what he set out to do in his introduction - strip away Beowulf's language to its core essentials, and show the outlines and early foundations of the heroic story, devoid of ornament.

This clarity, however, comes at a price. In his notes on the translation, Wright deplored the injection of what he called "the bankrupt currency of nineteenth-century romantic verse" (words such as "fain" and "blithe", et cetera), as it "strips the work of its force and dignity, without capturing the tone of the Anglo-Saxon poem." Unfortunately, there are clearly places where Wright himself succumbs to contemporary jargon, for example using the word "parallel" at least once or twice, as well as other unsightly modern words that the epic could have done without.

Despite this, Wright achieved what he set out to do - create a clean, crisp and coherent translation, that is easily readable. But here is a sample of what was lost, to the regret of lovers of old words everywhere. Wright renders Beowulf's first words to Hrothgar thusly:

"The leader of the band began to speak. 'We are Geats by race, and eat at the table of Hygelac.'"

A marvel of accuracy and conciseness, to be sure, that cannot be faulted on the technical merits.

Yet it fails to stir the blood. Consider the following lines from John Lesslie-Hall's 1892 edition:

The chief of the strangers rendered him answer,
War-troopers' leader, and word-treasure opened:
"We are sprung from the lineage of the people of Geatland
And Higelac's hearth-friends."

In laying bare the foundations of Beowulf, archaeologist-fashion, Wright has also stripped away many of the tapestries, mosaics and stained-glass windows whose ancient and beautifully obsolete designs held powerful magic for those of us who revel in archaic language, in all its shining mail-coated glory. Still, his Beowulf retains much of the essential character of the first hero of English letters, and is a valuable blueprint of modern heroic fantasy.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Lord of Mare Caelorum Commands His Chronicler

The day grew late, and the shadows grew long, when my Lord of Mare Caelorum did visit his Library, and found his Chronicler at his seat at the head of a long table, covered in volumes bound in leather, or painted in gilt, or ornamented with precious metals or rare stones. He greeted me with civility, and did ask for the parchment - which I gave him - on which I had written much in the hours since dawn. My day's labor had marshalled many squared columns of prose, escorted by curious phalanxes of notes, all in my peculiar, but clear, hand.

"A fair beginning," said he, "You have imbibed much in your short time on the Isle - not least of which the unfailing courtesy of the Islanders. And you have adopted our manner of speaking most closely, I do note." I nodded and replied, "I embrace the ways of Mare Caelorum in all things, my lord, she who took me in as a wanderer of no grace and less name."

He returned the parchment, then took up the volume before me. "Beowulf ... Now there was a truthful fellow. He boasted obscenely, but made good them all. A rare retainer, he." Rapping the book with his knuckle, "And I enjoin you to follow his example, Chronicler."

"In what manner, my lord? Command me."

"Speak as he did, always, with truth bereft of ornament. You speak as an Islander, and wear our ways well. But this Chronicle may suffer for it, and that I will not abide." His face was solemn as he spoke, and I remained silent.

"Do not bend words or shade meanings, nor look upon the pages of the Books with eyes other than your own. The vessel that brought you to our shores was fashioned in a land far away, as were you yourself, Chronicler. As this task falls to you - and you alone - you will fulfill it honestly and in perfect truth. Write as you would for those you left behind, and you will serve me well. I forbid you to do otherwise, lest respect for our ways become unwitting mockery that poisons the Chronicle even as it is being born."

"It shall be as you say, my lord," I said, and meant it.

"That is well. As you make your way through these shelves, my man, you will find many volumes that will defy any accounting, unless you use the tools you brought with you, in your head, ere your boots were soaked by our surf when you left your frail craft. Do not be surprised if you recognize most of these tales. They made the same journey as you."

I nodded again. I knew this was true. And I suspected it was true of many of the Islanders also. But I said nothing of this. I asked, "I will not fail in obedience, my lord. But will not the Chronicle then bewilder those who chance to read it?"

He shook his head. "I misdoubt any will read it other than myself, Chronicler. And your ways are no mystery to me. Besides, the Islanders care little for the Library, being engaged in pursuits that please them better."

I hazarded a final question. "Is that then to what I owe my office, my lord? No one else wanted the job?"

He laughed and nodded. "Yes! That, and the fact you are utterly no use anywhere else on the Island! Now go to! Beowulf awaits."

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Enter the Chronicler of Mare Caelorum

These lines be written in gratitude to the Lord of Mare Caelorum, the just and wise benefactor of this Isle, who in mercy and charity has given this your humble servant the title, office and privileges of Chronicler of this most excellent Library of Mare Caelorum, the wonder and the jewel of the Castle of the same name, in which a Thousand Books be kept safe from the ravages of time, the sea and wind, and the perils of a forgetful age.

My lord put the keys to the Library in my hand, with great solemnity. "Chronicler," said he, "Thy duties are thus. The Thousand Books, and all they contain, fall under thy sole charge. You shall take them into thy close keeping, and preserve them, and read them every one, and faithfully report all knowledge of wisdom or folly that thine eyes shall behold within each and all. Take quill and scroll and inkhorn into your hand, and do not cease until the Chronicle of a Thousand Books be written, or the Castle fall, or death release you."

He bade me open the heavy door, which I did, and enter. A vast chamber I beheld, with mighty columns of stone, and the sun which fell upon the Castle atop our great Rock of Mare Caelorum did blaze upon the gilded spines of a multitude of books, more than ever I dreamed the world could hold. Be resolute, did I say inwardly, and take up thy task, and do not falter.

And this I shall do. The Chronicles of a Thousand Books of wisdom and folly shall be etched by my hand. If any fault or error they should contain, let the blame fall upon my head. And should they be worthy of praise or reward, may these fall to the Lord of Mare Caelorum, as is his due. But let the labors of his servant the Chronicler not be forgotten.