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Friday, May 6, 2016

Elvish Outlaw: A Review of Nancy Springer's "Tales of Rowan Hood" Series

     As most of my loyal readers know by now, I have long had a love affair with Robin Hood since first watching the Disney cartoon at the tender age of six. This love gave rise to my love of England, and from there, the whole of the British Isles. If you ever come to my humble abode, I will happily show you the abundant array of fan-girl memorabilia lovingly arranged on my display shelf, including Robin Hood books, videos, DVDs, puppets, lunch-boxes, etc.

     Hence, when I went to the library one day and stumbled across Tales of Rowan Hood in the Young Adult Fiction section, my interest was piqued. The author, Nancy Springer, had evidently written about a certain daughter of the famous outlaw, with some of fantasy elements woven throughout. At first, I hesitated. These things could be teeth-pulling-ly painful, especially if too much pixie dust and girl-power was tossed into the medieval soup. And yet, I decided to be bold and checked out Tales all the same. Ultimately, I wound up reading all five of the books in the series: Tales of Rowan HoodLionclawOutlaw Princess of SherwoodWild Boy, and Rowan Hood Returns.

     Obviously the series wasn’t bad enough to turn me off entirely; in fact, it was good enough to keep me hooked (at least to some extent)! Nancy Springer writes in a flowing, lyrical style, weaving words like a poet with an almost musical quality. She also has a clear handle on how to create colorful characters and vibrant settings, as well as balancing suspenseful pauses with exciting action sequences. As a result, her Tales prove to be page-turners from the beginning of Ro’s journey to find her father, “The Prince of Thieves”, to her climactic encounter with Guy of Gisbourne, “The Man with No Soul.”

     Springer also utilizes an original combination of the traditional Robin Hood legends and fantastical, pseudo-Arthurian elements. Some parts of her stories are direct take-offs from the legends of King Arthur, including the incident of the brother knights slaying each other in battle. In certain ways, the creativity behind this blend is appealing, and is sure to introduce a whole new generation of fantasy lovers to Robin Hood for the first time. But in other ways, I personally feel some of the glitz and glitter undermines the charm of Robin Hood that first captured my heart as a child. Perhaps it was the whole concept that it was real enough to have really happened.

     One of my biggest issues with the plot has to do with Robin’s liaison with an Elf-woman in the woods, completely refusing to even introduce Maid Marian into the stories as a character. For this wanna-be-girl-in-Lincoln-Green, this is a near-unforgivable assault. Marian is far too established in the legends at this late date to simply write her out of the script and expect to retain any credibility for it. Furthermore, the Elvish interference in the plot turns Rob into a wood-side womanizer, having flings with mythical creatures at random and throwing away his traditional Catholic morality.

     To make matters worse, the reason given for Robin’s uncanny ability to avoid capture in his outlaw career is that his elf girl-friend in the wings has cast a spell to prevent him from being recognized! This is totally ruinous to the character of Robin Hood, who has always stood out as something of a self-made-man. In undermines his foxy cleverness, his talent for disguise, and all the things that make him a swashbuckler of note. Here we see hearty realism being exchanged for easy-fix, cop-out magical solutions.

     To be fair, Robin is portrayed positively to some extent. We do get to see his tender side, both with his daughter Ro, her assortment of companions, and the ill-treated son of the Sheriff of Nottingham, young Tod. Torn between his own mistreatment and remaining undercurrent of loyalty to his father, Tod is probably one of my favorite characters in the series. He shows strength of character that is unexpected, considering how hard-core rotten his father is, and Robin Hood goes the extra mile to affirm that and become a true father-figure to him. It goes to show that even a bad man can have a good son, and no one should be judged by the previous generation.

     On the subject of the main character, I do wish that Ro’s character had been more deeply explored. Much of the time she is so absorbed in her quest to avenge her mother’s death, or live up to her father’s reputation, her own identity remains blurred and brooding. Her relationship with Robin Hood seems tinged with a sense of competition, and R.H. comes off as being unsure how to properly relate to his daughter or be a leader of men in a convincing way. Somehow, his whole persona seems limp, lax, and uninspiring. He’s gone from an Outlaw Prince to a Sugar Daddy Pushover.

     This follows suit with the constant push to create a female equivalent of R.H. I’m not opposed to a female compliment for him, specifically in the person of the spirited Maid Marion. But then she was never trying to take Robin’s place. Rowan Hood, like Gwen in Princess of Thieves, is there to out-shine her father as opposed to complimenting him. Also the whole plot gimmick of Rowan doing “one better” than her Robin by teaching the peasants how to make money belies the main point of the original tales: the people were being brutally over-taxed, and Robin was in essence stealing their hard-earned pay back for them.

     Another pet peeve I have has to do with Princess Etarde and how she supposedly comes from some “petty kingdom” in or around England. Okay, this is supposed to be King Richard’s England; there were no “petty kingdoms” in that territory. Either she is supposed to be the daughter of a chieftain from Ireland or a petty prince on the continent. But it doesn’t seem that Springer is at all concerned with historical accuracy or explanation. She is using a fantasy gimmick, taken out of the Arthurian Cycles or The Lord of the Rings. Hence, the crux of the matter is that the setting of the story is not so much “Merrie England”, but a mythical fantasy realm, complete with elves and witches and magical spells.

     Another factor to mention is that Christianity hardly plays any part in the series and the characters often seem to be more or less to be generic nature-worshippers. I certainly don’t mind the inclusion Pagan elements in traditional stories with legitimately Pagan influence, such as King Arthur, which welded together Pagan and Christian themes and symbolism. But in this case, we’re dealing with medieval England, which was a Christian society. As opposed to an emphasis on “The Lady of the Wood”, Robin would have been praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he is shown as being staunchly devoted in even the oldest variants of his legend. Again, this garbling of the predominant religious beliefs in Europe during the Middle Ages seriously damages the realism of Robin Hood and the down-to-earth style of the legends. I love the relatable Robin, the man of folk songs and tavern tales, but not mythic embroidery and complexity akin to the Arthurian Cycles.

     But on the positive side, the author does do a good job with character contrasts, and I appreciate how each book is written from a different character’s perspective. This enabled it to be much more diverse and engaging than sticking strictly to Ro’s point of view. We are also given the chance to see through the eyes of Lionel, the mystic minstrel whose father believes him to be illegitimate; of Etarde, the philosophical princess whose sadistic father has locked her mother in a cage; and of Rook, the “wild boy of the woods” who is on a quest for vengeance after his father is left to die in a forest trap by the Sheriff of Nottingham. All of them are commendably multi-layered and sympathetic. I am rather disappointed that Springer ended the series before going into more detail about Beau, the faux-French-accented Gypsy with a mysterious past. Perhaps that will provide ample material for some future sequel.

     Out of all the books, I would have to say the final volume, Rowan Hood’s Return, has the most going for it in the way of a meaningful analysis of life and spirituality. The concept of Guy having “no soul”, thus preventing the elves from helping Rowan confront him, is a fascinating concept…although according to Catholic theology, even the most hardened sinners do have souls, and thus all human beings have the capacity to be redeemed, even if that redemption never comes about. Beyond that, however, I appreciated how it was shown that Ro’s obsession with revenge actually causes her lose contact with her Elvish ancestors who she has often communicated with in the woods.

     Furthermore, as she continues on her journey to track down the men responsible for killing her mother to administer vigilante justice, her legs weaken to the point where she can barely walk.
After various encounters along the route that open her heart more and more to her own humanity and calling to be a healer, the conclusion (warning: spoilers!) results in the restoration of Ro’s soul and the healing powers she inherited from her mother, the herbalist wood-wife adept in Elvish magic. I was also  pleased how, in the final confrontation with Guy of Gisbourne, Robin Hood does finally do something overtly heroic and saves his daughter life in a manner very congruent with the original source material. (That’s-a my boy…better late than never!)

     All in all, in spite of its various foibles and discrepancies, I am glad to have read Tales of Rowan Hood. The main themes of the series are the importance of familial relationships (whether by blood or emotional bond) and the power of forgiveness, as well as ostensibly “every teen’s search for self.” Perhaps that’s a bit of stretch, but still, I would say some interesting concepts about maturing are explored in the series. Even though the father-issues that the characters have to deal can become a bit redundant (which makes me wonder if perhaps the author had paternal difficulties as well), it does enable them to grow in new ways. Indeed, even though I may not be a fan of Ro, she certainly does come off as a more well-rounded and sympathetic character before the curtain finally closes.

    So overall, I give the series 3 out of 5 stars, and would recommend it as a fairly entertaining and occasionally profound non-canon fan-fiction-esque romp through the greenwood…in spite of my allergic reaction to the excessive amount of forest pixie dust, Elvish interlopers, and dead-beat dads!

Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Emotional Depth and Imaginary Heights: Fantasy and Sci-Fi Stories That Teach Us How to Love

      In any genre or medium, it is my heart-felt believe that the worth of a story is dependent upon how much that story can reveal about our own souls, and ultimately, how much it can reveal to us about the Nature of Love. Even in a roundabout way, or by exposing realities that fly in the face of that which should be, this is still the heart of the matter. Love is often falsely made synonymous with romance, but in reality there are many complex forms of love. All of these variations must be built upon and grow out of other virtues, and can be made manifest in many ways, from steadfast loyalty in friendship to courage in the battle for a just cause. True love always extends beyond any form of isolationism and reaches out to bring others in, thereby changing our world a little at a time.

    The following are just a handful of the fantasy and science fiction stories that teach about different types of love and have come to impact me as a person and leave me with a lasting sense of appreciation for the fusion of emotional depth and imaginary heights:  

     In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is the love of friendship that binds together the Fellowship in general and the hobbits in particular, as they traverse the very edge of doom. Frodo discovers the depths of devotion in Sam, who gives him the emotional strength to withstand the strain of his burden and pulls him up from the brink of despair. There are also the romances played out between Aragorn and Arwen and between Eowyn and Faramir, whose relationships are not mere emotional obsessions but are tested and purified by sacrifice and their submission to a good higher than their own personal happiness as the apocalyptic struggle rages around them. Finally, there is the love found in the mercy Frodo shows the twisted creature Gollum which, although it initially seems to be of no consequence, ultimately proves to be the salvation of all.  

     In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is laced with direct allegories of the Christian Faith, the focal point of the story is placed upon the sacrificial love of Aslan, the all-powerful Lion King, who willingly surrenders himself to the White Witch to redeem a traitorous human, and meets a bloody death upon the Stone Table. The fact that the Ancient Magic dictates love is stronger than death is the saving grace which enables resurrection and restoration for all. There is also the familial bond of the Pevensie siblings, and their determination to fulfill the ancient prophecy and do right by the inhabitants of Narnia, even when defeat and death seem certain. Lastly, there is the love shown by the Narnians themselves for the old stories that have enabled them to cling to hope in each passing generation and give them the strength to rise up in defiance of the Witch upon Aslan’s return.

     In Suzanne Collins’ Panem, the depravity and perversion of the dystopian setting brings out the best and worst sides of human nature, exposing the complex gray areas that pit survival against humanity and life against love. The heroine Katniss Everdeen embodies this internal conflict through the complexities of her own personality, combining toughness and skill with empathy and vulnerability. And yet in spite of the darkness, there are always sparks of hope. Indeed, she is known as “The Girl on Fire”, and ultimately inspires courage among her oppressed compatriots to rise up against the tyrannical Capital. Her sacrificial love for her sister Prim prompts her to take her place and volunteer to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games from which she knows she may never return, and her growing love for her fellow district tribute Peeta causes her to make a momentous decision at the end of the games which starts a chain reaction of world-shattering consequence. Katniss also shows compassion to Rue, a younger tribute who befriends in the arena, and she is in turn shown mercy by another tribute, Thresh.

     In the Star Wars Universe created by George Lucas, the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force challenges all the main characters to face their inner angels and demons. Luke Skywalker rediscovers his Jedi ancestry and determines to master the Force and overthrow the Imperial regime oppressing the galaxies. However, when he learns that his own father betrayed his identity as a Jedi and misused the Force to morph into the sinister Darth Vader, Luke realizes that only through sacrificial love will he be able to save both the universe and his father’s soul. The plot also emphasizes the all of the virtues bound up with friendship and fighting for a common cause. Han Solo in particular, although initially indifferent about the world around him, is changed by his bond with the other characters, especially Princess Leia, and rises to the challenge of becoming an unlikely hero.

     In the original series of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, we again see an emphasis placed upon the mutual devotion of the crew members to their respective duties and to one other. Captain Kirk epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of a humanistic leader, while at the same time demonstrating the hope for mankind to improve and develop. Dr. McCoy performs his role as medical officer of the crew with moral impetus, and acts as Kirk’s conscience and human connection. Perhaps one of the most complex characters in the series is Spock, the half human, half Vulcan science officer who ostensibly has no emotions. His repression of his own feelings makes it more clear to us why a balance between mind and heart is needed, and we cannot help but enjoy it when, in spite of himself, some of his inner feelings are briefly and unexpectedly revealed. The friendship of this dynamic trio is a hallmark of the productions and has assured their continued longevity.

Aslan and Edmund from "The Chronicles of Narnia"

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Cat of a Diifferent Coat: Spirituality, Storytelling, and the Music of Karliene

Among my favorite YouTube independent artists is a Scotswoman named Karliene. An unabashedly enthusiastic pop culture fan-girl, most of her covers and compositions are inspired by geek fandoms such as Game of ThronesThe Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, and The Hunger Games, among others. But there is something that makes her musical style different than typical fan-based recordings.

    There is real quality to be found in her works, and a real sense of the soul, creating a beautiful sense of grace touching culture. In whatever realm her music is supposed to be set, she weaves a web of timeless story-telling brought to life through emotionally-engrossing vocals and starkly surreal music. Through it all, she always manages to bring out the deeper meaning of her material with a burning sense of realism and purpose. Indeed I find that listening to her proves to be a spiritually enriching experience.

     Although I am not a major fan of Game of Thrones (mainly because of the inclusion of sensationalist horror-sex, a nauseating level of gore, and ambiguous moral themes and sense of plot direction), Karliene’s GoT-inspired music has a way of drawing out the best elements worthy of being remembered. 

     “Sansa’s Hymn”, for example, highlights a prayer for protection and peace recited by Sansa, eldest daughter of the House of Stark, who has lost most of her innocence and faith after her father, mother, brother, and sister-in-law are all murdered by the ruling House of Lannister. In the midst of all this brutal feuding, and in spite of the bitterness that is seeping into her soul, the words of the prayer reveal the heart she is forced to keep hidden as she plays the political game. 

     Even surrounded by battle and bloodshed on all sides, the words dare to express hope for a better future. Although the prayer is directed to a one of the Seven Faces of the Divine worshipped in Westeros, as a Catholic, I cannot help but see a strikingly Marian element to it: 

     “Gentle Mother, font of mercy/Save our sons from war we pray/Stay the swords and stay the arrows/Let them know a better day…” 

     She goes on to implore strength for all women to get through the darkness surrounding them, and that someday the feuding will end for good, when the people themselves know better than to continue it: 

     “Gentle mother, strength of women/Help our daughters through this fray/Soothe the wrath and tame the fury/Teach us all a kinder way…” 

     Karliene’s voice begins softly as she sings, and then swells with harmonies of heart-felt supplication and anguish that capture the mood to perfection. Indeed, if GoT has any lasting meaning, perhaps this song embodies it. 

     “The Rains of Castamere” is one of the most well-known songs in the series and in Karliene’s repertoire. It is a haunting lament for a noble house wiped out in the feuding, which also comes to be associated with the deaths of Caitlyn Stark and her son Rob at the gruesome massacre called “The Red Wedding.” The lyrics are extremely reminiscent of the historical inspiration for GoT found in The War of the Roses, when similar dynastic struggles brought medieval England to its knees. 

     In the style of a folk ballad, the lyrics give an overview of the dispute between two noble houses (both represented by different colored lions) with dialogue: 

     “‘And who are you,’ the proud lord said/‘That I must bow so low?’/‘Only a cat of a different coat/That’s all the truth I know/In a coat of gold, or a coat of red/The lion still has its claws/And mine are long and sharp, my lord/As long and sharp as yours…” 

     The second stanza is even more dark and haunting, as the once illustrious house, now emptied of inhabitants who have been mercilessly wiped out, falls into ruin (note: the word “rains” also is a synonym for “reigns”): 

     “And so he spoke, and so he spoke/That Lord of Castamere/But now the rains weep o’er his hall/With no one there to hear/The rains fall down, yes, the rains fall down/On Lord of Castamere/Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall/With not a soul to hear…” 

     In addition to being a grim ode to the casualties of feudal in-fighting that seems ripped straight out of a Shakespeare play, it also carries  with it an age-old moral that no man, no matter how powerful or wealthy or secure he may seem, is able to cheat death, the great leveler. The splendors of the world are doomed to crumble into dust. 

     The sound of rain and the mournful violin on this track is masterful, as is the reverb placed on Karliene’s vocals, making it sounds as if she is truly singing in a hall. In addition to this version, Karliene created a special track lamenting the Red Wedding, overlaying “The Rains of Castamere” with a powerful plea for an end to the killing called “Let It End.” The words repeat themselves with heartrending effect: 

     “Let it end/Bloodshed…” 
     Touching further on the spiritual side of Westeros, Karliene sings a lullaby about the seven gods of myth called “The Song of the Seven.” In the broad sweep, one might see the different figures not so much as multiple deities and the many facets of The Ground of Reality. They are often represented by the seven colors of the rainbow, and crystals used to separate the colors. Also, they can be seen to represent different members of the Stark family: 

     "The seven gods who made us all/Are listening if we should call...They see you, little children..."
          The song  goes on to list the roles of the gods as Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, and Smith, but appropriately leaves the last god, whose role is that of Stranger, anonymous. This is profound in that he is very much the unknown aspect of the seven-sided deity, called upon by outcasts and rejects of society.       

     Karliene sings with tenderness and also a touch of melancholy, for we know the child-like innocence expressed will soon be shattered by violence and war. And yet there is also a sense that, through it all, the powers that be are still guiding events. The harp track is quite otherworldly, and reminds of the Vulcan lyre. 

     Aside from the Stark family, another character Karliene highlights is Daenerys Targaryen in the song “Dragon Queen.” The music begins with a brief harp intro playing the TV theme for GoT and then breaking into her own individual theme. Her legacy as one who liberates slaves and “answers injustice with justice” is brought to the fore in the lyrics: 

     “She who walks in fire will strike down every master/break the chains around us…Oh, silver Queen! Blood of Dragons can be seen!” 

     Also, her claim to the throne of Westeros is strongly alluded to, as she marches with her army of loyal freemen towards the sea. Her association with dragons is one of the most overt fantasy elements in the series that tends more towards a crude historical fiction feel. These “pets” are symbolic of her own strength and fierceness, earning her the name “Mother of Dragons.” In many ways, she represents the archetype of royal savior returning from exile to liberate the oppressed and defend the weak, making her a character we can all feel cause to champion, in spite of her various faults. 

     Another cover Karliene recorded was the theme from The Hunger Games, “Safe and Sound. It is a song that manages to capture the depth of humanity found amidst the horror of tyranny and gladiatorial spectacle, speaking of Katniss Everdeen’s love of her sister Prim, whose place she took as tribute in the Games, and also for her fellow tribute Peeta, whom she nurses back to health when he is injured and refuses to kill at the Games’ end.

     Not only does it speak of the desire to keep one’s loved ones safe, but also, after watching the often tragic unfolding of the individual character stories, it has a similar effect to “Into the West” from The Lord of the Rings, and can be seen as speaking of a higher eternal plane: 

     “Just close your eyes/The sun is going down/You’ll be alright/No one can hurt you now/Come morning light/You and I’ll be safe and sound…”    

     The tune has a lullaby-like quality, and the simple piano accompaniment brings this out all the more. Furthermore, Karliene manages to bring an element of tenderness and melancholy to the piece, which I felt was lacking in the original version by Taylor Swift.

     Turning to The Lord of the Rings, one of my favorite Tolkien-esque tracks from Karliene is “Lament for Boromir.” Indeed, it was the first track that I ever heard her perform, and it completely won me over. 

     It is sung a capella with haunting harmonies, humming in chords, the songs of the bird, and reverb, perfectly fitting for Tolkien’s lengthy poem in the style of the Anglo-Saxon epics such as “Beowulf.” The singer asks the wind what news it has of Gondor’s favorite son, Boromir, and both his last stand in battle and his Viking-like funeral are recorded: 

     “Ask not of me where he doth dwell, so many bones there lie, on the white shores, on the dark shores, under a stormy sky…” 

     In addition to the richly evocative language, the thing that makes the song particularly powerful is the section of the story which it describes. Boromir had just tried to take the One Ring from Frodo shortly before his death. However, he redeems himself when he is killed trying to defend the hobbits Merry and Pippin from an orc attack. As he lies dying, Aragorn swears he will not allow Gondor, The White City, to fall, and finally rises to the challenge of being king. It is one of my top favorite scenes in the LotR film trilogy. 

     From The Hobbit, Karliene also managed to salvage a song I had long rolled my eyes at as a coffee house background tune unsuitable for Middle Earth: “I See Fire.” Somehow, for me at least, her vocals brought a whole new level of emotional intensity to the song. While I had previously felt that the lyrics had fallen rather flat (and still consider some of them to be the same!), the passionate resolve in her voice brings alive the declaration of loyalty to the end between Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf friends: 

     “If this is to end in fire, we will burn together/Watch the flames climb higher into the night…If we should die tonight, we will all die together/Raise a glass of wine for the last time…” 

     Here, I can’t help find an historical equivalent in British General James Wolfe singing “How Stand the Glass Around?” before the Battle of Quebec in 1759. What Karliene achieved was to bring this connection home to me and highlight the bond of brotherhood that binds the main characters together even as the dragon Smaug takes to the sky with all his fiery destruction. 

     Apart from major fandoms, Karliene also has good taste in extracting songs from stand-alone films/video games with Celtic/Medieval themes. For example, from the 2006 motion picture King Arthur (which I admittedly found to be a rather painful exercise to trying too hard to stuff mythology into an historical context, and butchering both) she recorded a cover for the sorrowful and spine-tingling “Song of the Exiles.” Again, she manages to reproduce it with gentility and power, accompanied by haunting harmonies and the pluck of harp strings.

     The lyrics speak of the profound longing all of us have to “go home”, in the emotional sense of finding a place of belonging, as exemplified by the Sardinian soldiers forced to fight for Rome in the wilds of the British Isles. It also comes to be associated with Arthur’s decision to stay in Britain and fight the Saxon invaders, for even though his head may be for Rome, his heart is firmly set in the homeland of his mother. 

     In a more universal sense, the song also brings Arthur’s words to the fore about finding a “home” wherever one is free. Beyond the temporal, there is also a spiritual dynamic of searching for a home beyond this world, where our deepest longings may finally be satisfied: 

     “Land that gave us birth and blessings/Land that calls us ever homeward/We will go home across the mountains…”

     Another one-off song track by Karliene is “Gently As She Goes”, taken from the soundtrack from the 3-D animated version of Beowulf. As one who appreciates the original epic poem, I can’t say that this action-crazed, sex-saturated, glorified creature-feature was anything less than a total turn-off for my sense of aesthetics. 

     Nevertheless, Karliene once again managed to pull out the best element of the film by choosing this song sung by the king’s wife to the warriors steeling themselves to battle Grendel in the Mead-Hall. It is soft and delicate as the falling snow, describing the outward and inward beauty of a fair maiden, accompanied by a harp, similar to the lyre she played in the scene, accompanied by the gentle rattle of a tambourine in the last verse. 

     All this is strikingly serene in comparison with the harsh Scandinavian landscape beyond the hall, and the knowledge that Grendel and his mother are preparing their attack. It also highlights Beowulf’s own growing attraction towards the queen: 

     “Lips ripe as the berries in June/Red’s the rose, red’s the rose/Skin pale as the light of the moon/Gently as she goes…Eyes blue as the sea and the sky/Water flows, water flows/Heart burning like fire in the night/Gently as she goes…”
     In a deeper sense, it shows that even the most hardened warriors are still capable of being touched by softness and beauty, just as is demonstrated in the legend of the Japanese Samurai who had his sword engraved with pastoral images of home. 

     There are many other songs of note, including “The Dragon-Born Comes” from Skyrim, “John Snow, “Dornishman’s Wife,” “Mountain Giants”, and “You Win or You Die” from GoT, “Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games, “The Last Goodbye” and “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit, “Edge of Night” from The Lord of the Rings, “Bound” and “The Woman of Balnain” from Outlander, not to mention her albums with historical/mythological themes, dealing with such famous female figures as Boudica, Guinevere, and Anne Boleyn. 

     But one thing remains a universal constant in her work: her stories-in-song manage to transcend time and space and make one truly feel the heart and soul of any setting. It is a strikingly human journey into the deeper meaning of popular fandoms, and it is one on which every geek in search of grace should embark.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Lord or Lady?: The Search for the Divine Gender

 In broad-ranging spiritual discussion circles, there tends to be a fair amount of conversation about the Divine “Life Force” which most of the world refers to as God. One of the main issues of contention is whether this “Force” has a gender, and if so, whether it is male or female. I am going to do my best to come at this complex quandary from a Catholic perspective in hopes of clarifying our position on gender in general.

     First off, it must be remembered that God is always far above and beyond human attempts to describe or categorize. Also, if there is a Divine Being outside of time and space from which all existence flows, this Being is most certainly spiritual in nature. So like angels, it is reasonable to conclude that God is indeed above and beyond gender.
Since human beings, both male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God, it would also be a logical conclusion that the good attributes found in both men and women are a part of the nature of God.

     From God comes both “the strength of man and beauty of woman,” as George MacDonald wrote, fusing the utility and asceticism that defines the world in which we live. I will go further to say that in God, who is singularly responsible for bringing forth the universe from the depths of nothingness, we see elements of both the life-giving seeding of man and the life-nourishing birthing of woman.
     In different cultures, the search for the Divine has led to a variety of expressions that emphasize strikingly different, although also occasionally similar, understandings of the ground of reality. In Judaism, the People of Israel received revelation from God in a distinctly male persona. For a patriarchal society such as their own, this made perfect sense to their understanding of the world.

     However, other peoples, such as the Druidic Celts, had a strongly held belief that spiritual wisdom was the kith and kin of female intuition. They also identified the land itself as female, which they believed was charged with a magical grandeur that was itself an extension of the Mother Goddess. Indeed, the earth was often called her body, and the rivers her blood. This inspired the Celtics to view underground springs and wells as sacred portals to the spirit world.

     Other variations of this belief in the divine feminine included the worship of the Mother Goddess Gaia from Greek mythology, who continues to have quite a following in New Age circles and is often depicted bearing the earth in her belly as a pregnant woman. Returning to Indo-European style Paganism, extending into modern Wicca, there is also a belief in the duality of the Divine, made manifest by “The Forest Lovers” or “The Lord and Lady of Nature”, according to the “Witches’ Rune.”

     All this cultural analysis aside, there are two key points which orthodox Christians must be ready to acknowledge and accept: first, that Jesus Christ is God, “I AM”, the Second Person in The Holy Trinity, who took on a human nature and an accompanying male gender; and secondly, that He repeatedly and specifically referred to God in the masculine as His Father, as epitomized in “The Lord’s Prayer.”

     However, I believe it is incorrect for men to feel any sense of superiority over women on this account. God is God, outside of our boxes, and if it had been according to Divine plan, the Messiah might have come among us as a female. Of course, it clearly was not within that plan, and I as a Christian woman am fully content with that. While I make no pretense to understand the mind of God, there are some very valid reasons I can think of off the top of my head for why this was not the case.

     Firstly, the Jewish patriarchal society would never have accepted it, and the Jews were the Chosen People from whom the Messiah would come forth. All the prophecies spoke of the coming of the Prince of Peace and the Son of David, reestablishing and continuing the royal legacy of their deposed kingship. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is deep theological significance in Christ coming as a man…or should I say the Man.

     The story of the Incarnation starts when The Holy Spirit overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary as the ultimate life-giving force, the Masculine embrace of the Feminine. In this sense, all our souls, that spiritual essence of ourselves, are to some extent feminine in that they are brought new life by the masculinity of the Christ, the New Adam. This is also brought to the fore in the masculine death on behalf of the feminine in Christ’s death to ransom humanity, acting as a lover pouring out his strength to defend his beloved. This is the crux of the chivalric ideal.

     But even with all this noted, it must also be remembered that Christ Himself made reference to attributes of God more strongly associated with feminine nurturing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

     Also, in Christian art, the symbol of the mother pelican piercing her breast to feed her young has commonly been associated with the sacrifice Jesus made by shedding His blood for humanity. After all, it has been said that a mother’s love is said to be strong enough to carry all the world…surely this also could include bringing that world into being and sacrificing oneself on its behalf?

    Returning to the subject of life-giving blood: do not women shed their blood to prepare for new life through their menstrual cycles? While it tends to be a subject less spoken about in western societies, many indigenous cultures celebrate the beginning of a girl’s cycle with various rituals and festivities. It is a sign that the Great Circle of Life shall continue forward into the future. Equally so, the shedding of Christ’s blood enabled us to be reborn and know life in abundance.

     Elaborating on the same point, there is a certain feminine element of the Eucharist, the bread and wine Catholics believe is transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ during the consecration during mass. Mary is the one who fully gave her flesh and blood to Christ, since He had no human father.

     Beyond that, the act of God bestowing on us this flesh, this blood, this food for our nourishment found at the Eucharistic Table, can also be seen as a form of mothering. Indeed, some Bible verses make it sound strikingly similar to breast-feeding, particularly in the injunction, “This is My Body. Take and Eat.”

     Another very striking reference to breast-feeding and the spiritual life runs as follows: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” (1 Peter 2:2)

     In another sacramental context, Catholic author Solange Hertz makes the point that genders view baptism in different ways. Men tend to view it as waters of cleansing, whereas women view it as birthing waters. Of course, the Bible confirms that it is indeed an act of re-birth: “Unless a man be born again of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1,5).    

     Even the Old Testament tends towards the feminine in describing the goodness of God: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).

     Also, there is a Jewish tradition of referring to Holy Wisdom in the feminine, just as the Celts did for Divine Inspiration: “She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, ‘Let all who are simple come to my house!’” (Proverbs 9:2-4)

     Perhaps the tension between masculine and feminine attributes is more based on our own rocky gender relations in our fallen society than it is on any substantial theological conflict. Men too often have abused the strength of their bodies and turned their protective instinct into aggression. The life-giving force is transformed into self-gratifying gluttony that can tyrannize and dehumanize the feminine. In this atmosphere, many spiritual seekers find the concept of a female divinity to be a safer and more fulfilling alternative to a male one.

      This preference may well be grounded in a distorted image of the nature of masculinity. Sometimes I feel that quite a few well-intentioned Christian men fall into this same trap when defining the nature of manhood. There are some stereotypes which are foisted onto us by our culture, and the masculinity is made synonymous with toughness projected through visible gestures such as guzzling down alcoholic beverages, inhaling tobacco smoke, or engaging in blood sports.  
     But perhaps the real proof of manhood is not so much a tough attitude, or a proclivity towards smoking or drinking, or a tolerance for violence, but rather is grounded in true strength. And the single strongest thing that exists is love. It is the purest form of that which God is, and it is necessary seed from which all other virtues grow, as well as the pinnacle of the mountain which we climb. To be loving in a world of hatred is the true test of our humanity. This loving power is something that comes from within and is not worn on the sleeve with arrogance or for show.

     All this brings to mind one of my favorite television heroes, Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. Soft-spoken, humble, and empathetic, he defies many of the stereotypes about proving one’s manhood through vulgar displays of high-handed arrogance and crude mannerisms. Nevertheless he proves to be the pinnacle of physical and mental strength. Not only is he skilled in the martial arts, which he uses for the defense of himself and others in need, but he is also able to bear the brunt of insults and prejudice with amazing resignation.

     His strength is most often revealed through gentility, enabling him to tread on rice paper without tearing it and among serpents without rousing them to attack. Also, out of respect for all life forms, he is a vegetarian, and to keep his mind clear, he drinks no alcohol. And yet in all these things, he comes off as profoundly masculine. Indeed, when asked what he is, he often simply responds, “I am a man.” While clearly set apart on many levels in both nature and comportment (e.g. Christ both ate meat and drank alcohol, according His time, place, and heritage), in the way of gentle strength, sacrificial resignation, and pure masculinity, Kwai Chang can be seen as an imperfect type of Christ, the Son of Man.

     In this light, it is much easier to embrace the masculine aspects of God. We see them for what they were meant to be, not bent by a warped, misogynistic, power-hungry perspective. Also, in the light of the gender identity of Christ, it is understandable why only men can be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In addition to being about bodily constructs, gender shapes the essence of our identity and that which we were created to be. To act in persona Christi, it only makes sense that such an identity should be shared.

     This is not to say that women are somehow viewed as being on a lower plane in Church life. According to Catholic doctrine, the only person aside from Christ himself to be conceived free from the inheritance of Original Sin was a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. We acknowledge her title as Queen of Heaven and Earth, the most powerful and exalted member of our species aside from the God-Man Jesus Christ.

    When inferiority has been projected onto women in history, with the symbolic use of Eve’s apple and an excessively priggish attitude towards female sexuality (which, within the proper context of a life-long, sacramentally sealed commitment, is one of the great beauties of life), it has been largely the result of cultural norms and preconceptions, not any infallible declaration of the Church.

     While both men and women are called to live the fullness of the Christian life with both strength and love, perhaps we have our own unique ways of revealing it. We share so much, and yet there is still that priceless Ying and Yang factor which enables us to find equilibrium in each other’s company. That’s why it’s aptly said that behind every good man there is a good woman. As biological and emotional nurturers, women have an amazing transformative power. At the same time, good men bring out the best in women and honor their whole person with dignity and encouragement to be the best they can be. In all things, it can be truly said that the opposite of rape culture is nurturance culture.

        This brings us full circle in our search for the gender attributes of the Divine, a topic that proves to be highly controversial and even polarizing many religious circles. One such example of said polarization was when actor Leonard Nimoy (aka Star Trek’s Vulcan Science Officer Mr. Spock) mishandled an effort to promote the image of God in the feminine to a predominately Jewish audience by taking a picture shoot of naked female models, some of whom were holding or garbed in sacred Jewish ceremonial pieces. Although perhaps initially well-intended, the project quickly ran amuck.

     Predictably, the orthodox Jewish audience that had once felt a certain emotional kinship with him because of his own Judaism (albeit of a much more liberal “universalist” variant…indeed, he had previously made the controversial move of hijacking a rabbinic ceremonial blessing which became famous as the Vulcan salute!) promptly denounced the “heretical” display, which did seem pretty much on a par with girly calendar material, no matter what philosophical intro he may have included. Nevertheless, the whole project had some residual benefits for him…and he proceeded to make one of the models his second wife (which, of course, he must have decided was the logical course to take)!

     So yes, these topics can be severely mishandled and transformed into a sometimes sordid, sometimes farcical mess! This is especially the case when the subject at hand becomes less about gender and more about sexuality (ala Nimoy!). But this should not make us any more reticent to approach this important topic and treat it with the fairness it is due. Perhaps the question of “male or female” should best be answered “the best aspects of both, and way beyond either.” Interestingly, this balances the different aspects of human interaction with the divine rather well.

    For instance, in the Pagan understanding of the Divine feminine, she is meant to be pursued by a mystically male humanity, exemplified by the Celtic kings who were expected to mystically mate with the land, understood to be an extension of the Goddess.  On the other hand, in the Christian understanding of the Divine masculine, He is the one who seeks after and embraces humanity, as the Hound of Heaven and the Christological lover, bringing to the fore the Catholic mystics such as Catherine of Sienna who underwent a spiritual marriage to the Divine.

     Perhaps we, as humanity, both seek after and are sought after in turn, being purged by the Fire of the Holy Spirit (which could be seen as more masculine) and nurtured by the fruits of the Holy spirit (which could be seen as more feminine). Using a final Asian analogy, perhaps God is very like a Samurai’s sword, infused with both strength and beauty, and believed to contain the essence of the soul.

     But again, all these attempts at explaining the unexplainable are ultimately exercises in perception about a God who is beyond any labels humanity may be capable of devising. No neatly packaged box is able to take it all in. While revelation, tradition, and mysticism can all lend us glimpses of the Ultimate Reality, the full Truth must wait until we have reached a higher realm. In the end, perhaps it is the mystery of the Divine that is the most poignant reality. If it were not so, God would not be God.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Sacrifice of the Sun"

is a poem I wrote for this year's Triduum, comparing the sacrifice of Christ for the souls of humanity to an ancient legend of sacrificial love that has always inspired my heart...
“The Sun loved the Moon so dearly, that every night he died so she might draw breath.”
   - Ancient Myth
Trees whisper in the garden
The moon calls to wind,
“Blow hither the clouds to shield my beauty fair.”
The stars stream forth, as tears,
For the Sun goes forth to die
“Blow hard till the stars explode in molten flame.”
He goes forth, bowed by night,
Pressed till wine flows
“Blow till my black mantle shields His bloodied brow.”
The King of Light is drowned
In darkness smooth as ebony
“What is this breath I draw…to live in death?”
His death, His death, He dies…
Flowers open to the Moon
“Shield your eyes; my paleness is of death!”
Sunlight splashed on stones
Now cold as hardened hearts
“He sent forth His heat to warm a maiden’s breath!”
Breath cuts sharp as steel
And a maiden’s sword is purest
“Slice through, thou wind, the curtain’s breast!”
Thorns and blossoms intertwine
And scarlet blood is on the sun
“Fall, golden dew, thou honey of the Ancient Word!”
Serpents hiss in the garden
Soothe the trees with silken stride
“Your venom runs and poisons sun-lit veins!”
Fangs sink, yet He cries not
His is the tree’s legacy
“Hear, they whisper…the kiss of death…”
Oil that lights the lamps
Tree’s fruit, to guide us
“Come hither, tiny lights; wait for the Sun…”
Bride in geese-white gown,
Embrace the raven’s flight
“Fly fast, thou bird of death, then comes the dawn…”
Black wings stream with fire
Phoenix will arise
“Blow the ashes in the path, as incense swirls!”
Breath of perfumed chamber
Rising ball of amber
“He comes, He comes…purple heart of flame!”
And the trees whispered in the garden
As sun and moon crossed, sweet sighing
“Circle me, oh dance of dawning…”
And the touch of Love was theirs.
"Circle me, oh dance of dawning..."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

I have begun watching clips of "Game of Thrones"...

on YouTube to better my cultural literacy. This method allows me to choose what I want to see, as opposed to being bombarded with the unviewable. Anyway, there are some positive things to say: the acting is quite good, and the characters are compelling in their complexity. The world-building in general is fairly appealing. The bad is obvious: there is a lot of pure garbage thrown in for ratings (the stuff I do my best to circumvent), and the level of graphic violence is nothing less than disturbing.
Here's what's even more disturbing: the way some commenters on the show handle this violence. I used to think the reaction to "The Hunger Games" was a bit unnerving, with people seemingly just a bit too eager-beaver about the arena scenes. But with GoT, you start to see the fans actually emotionally investing themselves in the barbaric feuding to the point of taking actual pleasure in seeing certain characters die gruesome deaths because, accordint to their estimation, "they deserved it". Literally, one individual wrote something to the effect that watching one of the characters suffocate was "music to my ears."
I don't care what you want to say about this fictional character (who was admittedly really vile); the suffocation (which I did not stick in with for more than a few seconds) was realistic and grusome to watch, and the fact was this character was *still* a human being. I literally had to make myself feel better by looking up the actor who played said character and watching him give an interview to make sure he was okay! :P
Perhaps my point is that I sensed the viewers were actually taking pleasure in pain, even if it was fictional. The safety zone of fiction can easily cross over into real life reactions. This makes them on a par with the attitudes of said vile character. But the thought seems to be that vengence is justified and indeed something to relish.
Lastly, I want to comment on the episode "The Red Wedding". I only watched it from a distance on a small screen, as I heard it was really gruesome, with many of the main characters dying by the knife. But the thing that I found most disturbing was not the main characters' deaths. Rather, it was one character's willingness to take revenge on the wife of the murderer, who was being held hostage.
Again, there is this pervading sense that we should somehow be proud of said character for taking that revenge; that it was somehow strong and even noble. I say it was weak and cowardly and putting the supposedly "heroic" character on the same par as the man who murdered her son. This is not the way of Christianity, and indeed the story is not set in a Christian world. But is there still not moral law? And is our culture so eager to rally behind "heroes" who are not heroes at all?
Heroism is forgiving the unforgivable. Heroism is loving those who hate you and praying for those that persecute you and never, ever becoming that which you are fighting against. Perhaps instead of pop-culture anti-heroes, it is time to turn to the lives of saints. For us Catholics, its the season of Lent, when we seek to transform ourselves through the Grace of Christ and become more fully Human, made in the Image of God. Time to raise the bar.
"The Red Wedding"

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Stories That Matter: Teaching History with Catholic Principles

     My earliest memories are hinged upon the love of stories. In time, I discovered that the same story-driven essence present in tales that enraptured me as a child was the undergirding of history, and it drew me in through my Seton Home Study programs. I owe them a life-time debt of gratitude for introducing me more fully to the stories of saints and martyrs who were consumed by the Greatest Love and dedicated their lives to the Greatest Cause.
     Among them were St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (“The Glorious Daughter of America”, whose shrine I have prayed at throughout the course of my life, since I reside on the outskirts of Emmitsburg, MD) and St. Edmund Camion (“The Diamond of England”, who I developed a special devotion to as a life-long Britophile). Each one of these saints had his or her own unique calling and path to holiness, and yet they all responded to the same Universal Vocation. 

     Beyond just the contributions made by saints, there has been much discussion about how a Catholic should view the unfolding of world events as a whole. My conclusion is that perhaps a Catholic perspective of history is not so much a given interpretation of specific events as a broader guide to story-telling in general. After all, history is made up of interlocking stories, a mix of fact and fable meant to convey the multi-faceted nature of the human experience and the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt Hand of Providence.

     Our very act of retelling them is a testament of our own innate knowing that we are part of a grander plan. Without this understanding, there would be no such things as adventures to recount; things would just happen, all clutter and clamor signifying nothing. But life does have a purpose and our actions do matter, universally and cosmically. We are spiritual beings, endowed by our Creator with intellect and free will. That is why we must tell stories; it is in our very blood to “sub-create” and reveal the image of the Divine reflected in our lives. As Catholics, this is the spiritual vision that characterizes our view of the oft-times muddled saga of human affairs.  

     In addition to this, I believe the three most important elements of historical story-telling should be truth, charity, and balance. History is made up of human beings, and thus we are bound to show them the same justice and mercy as we should to our living, breathing neighbors. In fact, since the dead have no way of defending themselves, we should be especially mindful of how we interpret their actions and perpetuate their memory. Being more willing to extend the benefit of the doubt in cases of subjective judgments may not be a bad policy at all. Also perhaps taking to heart the via media (“middle way”) advocated by St. Thomas Aquinas could help put many a historical conundrum into balance.  

     It is easy to fall into the trap of judging the past by present standards, but context is vital in all things. This does not mean that the actuality of right and wrong alters over time or before God. However, there were those who were conditioned by their surroundings to see certain aspects of life that we would now consider to be indefensible to be quite acceptable, thus sinking into a state of invincible ignorance. It was only very rare figures, such as William Wilberforce who spent his whole life dedicated to ending the British Slave, who had the foresight and insight to rise up and challenge the norm and the establishment of their society.  

     Instead of trying to blot out the sordid realities of the past, we must face up to both the individuals and the eras that make up our heritage and come to terms with their complex legacies. We can be thankful that we have evolved in our moral consciousness and human empathy in some ways, while at the same time showing the proper respect to our admittedly flawed forbearers, without whom we could not have progressed as far as we have. Needless to say, it would be an act of great arrogance if we claimed that we did not have flaws of our own equally egregious.  

     Perhaps the crux of the matter is this: every age brings with it unique triumphs and tragedies. We are living with the benefits and consequences of our own set. While we may have done away with many of the abuses of the past, we have heaped up many more to be dealt with in the future. It is part of the cycle of fallen humanity. Nevertheless, there is also goodness and beauty in each era that we should have cause to honor. We should not learn history only as a means to avoid repeating it; rather we should study it to tap into our cultural bloodstream, lamenting what should be lamented and celebrating what should be celebrated. The glass which we look through must be neither dark-hued nor rose-tinted; it must be clear, with a hint of our own reflections so that we may see ourselves before judging others. It is a multi-layered ritual.  

     For Catholics, history can also been seen as a journey among the souls who have gone before us and for whom we are obligated to pray. Not just for the souls of deceased Catholics either. We are all Children of God by our very natures, and therefore inextricably interconnected with one another. According to the same reality, we must extend fairness to non-Catholics in history, and let them stand on their own merit or lack thereof, just like their Catholic counterparts.  

     Due to the injustices levied against Catholics by many non-Catholic/secular historians, some Catholics are tempted to go in the opposite direction when relating the broad sweep of history. But we should never feel the need to fight fire with fire, but rather overcome the evils we may experience with all the good that we can give. We must extend to them the fair historical treatment they may not have been willing to extend to us, marking us out as Catholics by being living examples of the brotherly love that Christ taught us to put into practice in all our undertakings.   

     With regards to teaching history to students, attempts to make it more relevant to modern audiences with artificial appendages commonly collapse in on themselves. Either they try too hard to make a complex domino effect hypothesis or attempt to tag a clumsy moral with political connotations onto the end. Perhaps the key is to hold history lightly, like the beater of a bodhran drum, and let the stories naturally fall into rhythm. Assuredly, we all have our own opinions and theories which we are free to express, but the most powerful ability of a good story is made manifest when it speaks for itself.  

     Contrary to sensationalist historical fiction mini-series (i.e. Wolf Hall, Sons of Liberty, and the fantasy/history/unfit-for-general-audiences-of-any-age amalgamation Game of Thrones), history is not just about corruption, revenge, lust, and hypocrisy…nor is that the reason we should want to delve into it. The very fact that such a description would tempt the masses is decidedly disturbing. It is the result of letting the bar of our humanity fall so low in the realm of what is supposed to be entertaining to us. But cynicism, in the end, is self-defeating for it blocks out the spiritual nourishment that comes with the Light of the Son.

     Catholics, by contrast, view history as we view humanity: scarred, but not slain; bent but not broken. As Chesterton said, “For there is good news yet to hear, and fine things to be seen.” There is still the life of the spirit in us, even in the darkest of moments. History reveals these lights, some famous and others obscure. Even amidst the torrent of human depravity, we still can find stories of honor, mercy, friendship, loyalty, courage, and fortitude. In short, we can learn from history about the many facets of love, placed in our hearts by Love Incarnate.  

     These are the stories that must be remembered amidst the gloom. Sacred Scripture exhorts us: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”  

    In conclusion: as we sojourn here in this Valley of Tears, we as Catholics must seek to strike the balance between accuracy and art, wisdom and innocence, justice and charity, recognizing our falleness, but also glorying in our redemption. So it is with the book of history. So it is with the Book of Life.


St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Teaches Her Students