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As someone once said, it's always hard to make predictions, especially about the future. This year I tracked several possible indicators of who might win this year's Hugos - the Goodreads/LibraryThing statistics, the views of bloggers, and the instincts of two commentators (one of them me).

Goodreads/LibraryThing statistics

This turned out to be the least reliable indicator this year. The 2016 Best Novel Hugo winner was fourth out of five by ownership on both Goodreads and LibraryThing, and the 1941 Best Novel Retro Hugo winner was second on both, but a very long way behind. Having said that, both winners had the highest average rating from readers on both systems.


For the first time in the years I have been tracking these things, the consensus among bloggers called all four written fiction categories correctly. It's never been more than two out of four before.

Gut instinct

Both Steve Davidson and I myself took the reputational risk of predicting who would win every single category. I got three wrong (Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form; Best Editor, Short Form; Best Professional Artist) though in two of those three cases my second guess was right. Steve called only nine of the seventeen categories correctly. He and I were both caught out by Abigail Larson's win for Best Professional Artist, and we also both expected Doctor Who to beat Jessica Jones.

What this shows

is that the Hugos remain capable of surprising us, and even though this was a year where the written fiction winners were relatively easy to foresee, many of the categories were very difficult to call. I loom forward to other peoples' commentaries next year.


Second paragraph of third story ("The Gift of Touch", by Chinelo Onwualu):
Bringing passengers on board always set him on edge; they had a tendency to poke about in places they didn’t belong. But running a haulage freighter doesn’t pay much when there isn’t much to haul. Now that the technology for instant matter transportation had improved movement between the five planets of the star system, work was becoming rarer. Bruno needed the money and he had to know that his ship, The Lady’s Gift, was in perfect shape.
I got this at the end of last year, when I had vain hopes that I might be able to read enough short sff to make a reasoned and helpful contribution to this year's Hugo nominations process, but didn't get around to reading it until now. As I expected, it's a collection of mostly excellent short stories by non-native English speakers; the two that particularly grabbed me by the brain were the very first one, "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family" by Usman T. Malik, and "How My Father Became a God" by Dilman Dila, both of which might have made it to my Hugo short list if I had read them in time (also assuming that they had no disqualifying previous publication, which I haven't checked). It also includes Thomas Olde Heuvelt's "The Boy Who Cast No Shadow" which was already a Hugo nominee in 2013. Glad I got it, sorry I didn't read it sooner.

This was the top book on my list edited or written by a non-white writer. Next up is vol 1 of Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang.

Saturday reading

Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt
Return to the Fractured Planet, by Dave Stone
The Collected Stories Of Arthur C. Clarke

Last books finished
Short Trips: A Day In The Life, ed. Ian Farrington
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Independence Day, by Peter Darville-Evans
Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin
One Does Not Simply Walk into Tudor, by Ivery Kirk and Luna Teague

Next books
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
Unquenchable Fire, by Rachel Pollack
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, by Jerry Brotton

Books acquired in last week
One Does Not Simply Walk into Tudor, by Ivery Kirk and Luna Teague
Doctor Who: Night of the Kraken, by Jonathan Green
Vurt, by Jeff Noon

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Second paragraph of third chapter:
It was evening once more and Hazel and Fiver were feeding outside the wood with two friends. Blackberry, the rabbit with tipped ears who had been startled by Fiver the night before, had listened carefully to Hazel’s description of the notice board, remarking that he had always felt sure that men left these things about to act as signs or messages of some kind, in the same way that rabbits left marks on runs and gaps. It was another neighbor, Dandelion, who had now brought the talk back to the Threarah and his indifference to Fiver’s fear.
This was a group reread masterminded by rmc28 over on her Dreamwidth journal. At 52 chapters, it would have been ideal to get through at a chapter a week in a calendar year, and that was indeed the original intent when we started in January 2015; but Real Life intervened, and we finished on August 31. I want to just take a moment to advocate this sort of group re-read - I've done two successful Tolstoys (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) on Facebook, and now Watership Down on LJ/DW. It's a great incentive to take a favourite or a classic slowly and also discuss with friends. (On the other hand, I have to say that collectively we completely bounced off the Romance of the Three Kingdoms when we tried it.)

I must have first read Watership Down when I was about nine, and then saw the notorious film when it came out a couple of years later. I was captivated then, and I am captivated now, four decades on. It's a great epic on a small scale, with Hazel leading a breakaway faction from a doomed warren, escaping many enemies, and then winning a conflict with the Efrafran rabbits led by the fearsome General Woundwort, to earn a just retirement. There is a lot of back-story mythology as well, centring around the trickster rabbit king and hero, El-Ahrairah. It has some beautiful descriptive passages:
The sun, risen behind the copse, threw long shadows from the trees southwestward across the field. The wet grass glittered and nearby a nut tree sparkled iridescent, winking and gleaming as its branches moved in the light wind. The brook was swollen and Hazel’s ears could distinguish the deeper, smoother sound, changed since the day before. Between the copse and the brook, the slope was covered with pale lilac lady’s-smocks, each standing separately in the grass, a frail stalk of bloom above a spread of cressy leaves. The breeze dropped and the little valley lay completely still, held in long beams of light and enclosed on either side by the lines of the woods. Upon this clear stillness, like feathers on the surface of a pool, fell the calling of a cuckoo.
Of course, now that I am older I'm more sensitive to the background of the story, which reflects Adams' wartime experience (especially Operation Market Garden) in the same way that Tolkien's work reflects the earlier war. As a child, I found chapter 31, The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, very very creepy indeed; as an adult, I was immensely moved by the ending in which the war veterans return to the warren they have saved, to find that their sacrifice has simply been forgotten by the next generation. There are some off-notes (the does come into the story rather late; there is a racist remark about Irish people; what is up with the sculptures and poetry in Cowslip's warren?) but in general it has kept its charm, and I'm immensely grateful to rmc28 for bringing me back to it.

(And of course I am classifying it as sff. It has talking rabbits, birds, cats and mice; and one of the rabbits is psychic.)

Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Triss’s eyes opened. Something scratchy was touching her cheek. She reached up, pulled the dead leaf out of her hair and stared at it. One by one, she recalled her actions the previous evening. Had she really climbed out of her window, gobbled windfalls and then stood on the banks of the Grimmer, feeling that it might speak to her? She picked her way through the memories with disbelief, like a householder surveying rubbish scattered by foxes overnight.
This was shortlisted for the BSFA Award last year, but I was pretty burnt out from Clarke Award reading at the time and didn't get to it until now. It was also shortlisted for the Andre Norton Award and the Carnegie Medal, and won the British Fantasy Association's Robert Holdstock Award (which perhaps I should think of adding to my list of awards to track).

I'm not sure if I'd have voted for it ahead of Ancillary Sword, but I really enjoyed this story of a twelve-year-old girl who finds that strange things are starting to happen to her and her family (still recovering from the loss of her elder brother in the recent war), including her own strangely immense appetite and the leaves she keeps finding in her hair, and then begins to realise the awful truth of how she has been changed, and the relationship of that change to the evil forces faced by her family and her world. I particularly liked the dead brother's girlfriend, who is the Trustworthy Adult yet with significant baggage of her own, but just generally there is a great sense of time and place, with many nods to similar stories (John Masefield in particular) but making something new out of it. I slightly wish I had a cousin or niece of the ideal age for it, but my cousins are a little too old and my nieces a little too young.

This was the top unread sf book on my list as recommended by you guys last year. Next is Angels & Visitations, by Neil Gaiman.

Bagpuss and the Clangers

I shall be in London on Saturday morning, and had been planning to do a historic walk - however, it looks like the weather will not be suitable. Instead I think I will go and see the Bagpuss and Clangers exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. Would anyone like to join me? I'd want to get there promptly at 10, and leave in time for my 1pm train home.
Second speech of third story (The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel, by Christopher Cooper):

ACE: I plead total ignorance. You won't even tell me what I'm supposed to have done!

There was a time when I regularly blogged my Big Finish listening as well as my books here. I may try and pick up that habit again - which in itself may inspire me to go back and re-listen to the dozens of audios I have listened to but not noted over the last few years.

This was the December 2015 release of Big Finish's monthly range of audios, switching to the occasional format of four short pieces by four different authors rather than one long one. (Next month's release will be similar.) These all feature Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred as the Seventh Doctor and Ace, both very much on form; the highest-profile guest star is John Culshaw, man of many voices, who plays the Porcian commander's wife Keith in the first story and the prosecutor in the third.

Of the four, we get off to a brilliant start with John Dorney's You Are The Doctor, an audio play in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style. It's funny and pushes the format of the usual Big Finish output to the edges; it's decently put together and very convincing in its own terms. The other three, Come Die With Me, by Jamie Anderson (son of Gerry and Sylvia), The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel, by Christopher Cooper and Dead to the World, by Matthew Elliott are all good enough - each dealing with crime and death in rather different ways (though I felt the revelation of the baddies' means and motivation in the last of them was a bit underwhelming), but You Are The Doctor is a mini-classic.

Second paragraph of third story ("Angel, Dark Angel"):
As he crossed toward the conveyor belt, a dozen heads turned in his direction because of the flash of light that occurred immediately before him.
Third of the definitive NESFA six-volume collection of Zelazny's short fiction, poetry and prose. Most of the stories were ones I already knew from collections published in or shortly after Zelazny's lifetime, the most striking exceptions being the texts of two children's books, Here There Be Dragons and Way Up High, whose original publication was delayed for years because of a dispute with underground artist, Vaughn Bodē, whose illustrations were part of the story (sadly not reproduced here). There are several extracts from Creatures of Light and Darkness, originally published separately but not really comprehensible outside the framework of the novel. There is also the original short version of Damnation Alley, which as you'd expect is punchier than the novel-length version, and the deleted Corwin/Dara sex scene from The Guns of Avalon, which I'm sorry to say is less exciting than it sounds.

I have to confess that I was wrong in one of my very early blog entries here, where I queried Samuel R. Delany's statement that much of Zelazny's work was driven by a tension between immortality and suicide; looking at his novels, I could see plenty of central characters driven by the former, but very few for whom the latter was a consideration. However, the first few stories in this collection convinced me that Delany was right (and in fairness, Delany was only quoting Zelazny who ought to know about his own work). A recurring theme of Zelazny's 1960s short fiction is either avoiding death altogether, or controlling the way in which one encounters it. One doesn't have to look too far into his biography to see what was driving this (a near-fatal car accident in 1964, followed a few weeks later by the sudden death of his father), and one doesn't have to look far into his earlier short fiction to see it either; in retrospect, I'm embarrassed that I missed it.

The short fiction is leavened by noted to the stories (helpful), poetry (not actually all that good, and much of it recycled from the novels) and book-ended by some essays by Zelazny himself and by a third installment of Christopher Kovacs' literary biography. I was pleased to read an anecdote in this last from a panel which I attended at Boskone 2007; it made me feel personally integrated into the narrative.

Anyway, for those who don't know Zelazny's work at all, any of these volumes would be quite a decent introduction; for those of us who are fans, it's nice to have everything between one set of covers.

This was the top book on my list of the remaining three that I acquired in 2009 and have not yet reviewed here. Next in order is Last Exit to Babylon, the fourth of this series.

Second frame of third chapter:
Second dialogue frame of third chapter:
"We were just about to succeed."

Worldcon 75 is in Helsinki next August, and you all have to come. There are five guests of honour, and I'm going to do a series of posts highlighting some of their work.

First up is Claire Wendling. She is a brilliant artist, who made a big splash in the French comics (ie bande dessinée) world at a young age. Les Lumières de l'Amalou, published between 1990 and 1996 (ie before she was 30), shows her style developing from a quirky ligne claire in the early volumes to a balancing of people and landscape in the last. Compare this page of the plane crash which kicks off the narrative:

with this pursuit across rugged landscape neat the end:

The story itself is about hybrid creatures inhabiting the shores of the river Amalou, uneasily located between central France of our world and the kingdom of the Oak (a huge but immobile sentient tree). In genre it's a hybrid between anthropomorphic fantasy and steampunk, between liminal and intrusion, between fairy-tale and tribal conflict. It's rather difficult to describe in more detail, but TV Tropes has had a go. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available in translation, but the point for Worldcon attendees is the art anyway, and I found it a rewarding and intriguing read.

This was my non-English comics slot, which I'm no longer really pretending to read in any particular order.

Planet of Judgement, by Joe Haldeman

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Much of the land area of Anomaly is jungle, and the planet has a very active, almost Mesozoic, ecology. Its surface and seas are aswarm with creatures man-sized and larger, mostly quite aggressive. So I've selected both the landing site and the landing party with some care.
As mentioned before, I picked up a few Star Trek novels by well-known SF authors a few years ago, and this was one of them. Trek isn't one of my core fandoms, but I like it enough to appreciate some of what Haldeman does here (alien intelligence with some good wrinkles, spooky bits where key members of the crew are presumed dead and have to convince others that they are alive, some very nice characterisation of McCoy in particular) and also to spot the standard elements (throwaway characters introduced to be killed off, back-stories invented for regulars which will never be used again). Enjoyable enough for what it is is, which is 150 pages that cost me £2.

This was the most popular book on my unread shelves acquired in 2012. Next on that particular pile is Paul Cartledge's biography of Alexander the Great.

The Sea and Summer, by George Turner

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Francis was obviously got up in his best clothes. A mistake: that age is more relaxed when a little scruffy and grubby. At the school he had been animated because he was showing off; here he was nervous, unsure of himself now that the performance was no longer a game.
I confess that I knew nothing of this book or of the writer, and had no expectations whatsoever; and I also confess that I really liked it. It's set in a dystopian Australia of the near future (though the story is told with a framing narrative of researchers from the not-quite-so-near future looking back and trying to work out what was going on, a device I usually love). Society is divided between the well-off Sweet and the proletarian Swill, and the central characters are a family who slip from the former to the latter, with a specific plot strand around the exposure of a massive plot by the government against their own people - though really I feel that as much as anything the setting is the story.

Australia is quite a good venue for post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian fiction, come to think of it. I have seen only one of the Mad Max films, but just a moment's reflection brings up Tank Girl, the Australian K9 series (nominally set in London, though I don't think anyone is fooled), The Year of the Angry Rabbit, and more seriously On The Beach.

Anyway, The Sea and Summer is well-executed, at least partly a critique of the present day (in ways that still need the same critique thitty years on). I'm a bit surprised I hadn't heard more about it, and will keep an eye out for Turner's other work.

This won the second ever Arthur C. Clarke Award back in 1988, beating Gráinne which got the BSFA Best Novel awarded that year. The following year's winners were Unquenchable Fire by Rachel Pollack (Clarke) and Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock (BSFA), and I'll take them in that order.

Dorpfeest Oud-Heverlee

Every year at the end of the summer, our village organises a three day Dorpfeest culminating on Sunday with a barbecue for all (at least, all who pay the price of admission).

picturesCollapse )

We were lucky with the weather. It rained heavily in the morning, and is raining again now; but we were able to enjoy a sunny afternoon of community.

Saturday reading

Short Trips: A Day In The Life, ed. Ian Farrington
Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Last books finished
Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4, ed. Mahvesh Murad
Brother and Sister, by Joanna Trollope

Last week's audios
The Waters of Amsterdam, by Jonathan Morris

Next books
Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt
The Collected Stories Of Arthur C. Clarke
Independence Day, by Peter Darvill-Evans

Books acquired in last week
Antares, Épisode 1, by Leo
Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Year: 1996

Patrick over on Facebook gave me a year: 1996

My age then: 29
My age now: 49
Relationship status then - married to Anne since 1993
Relationship status now - married to Anne since 1993
Occupation then - 1996 was a year of change. In January I was an academic, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies; in May I was an election candidate; from the summer I was a political adviser in the Northern Ireland peace talks; by December I had got a job implementing a US-funded democratisation in Bosnia, starting from January 1997.
Occupation now - public affairs consultant
Then I lived in Belfast, specifically at 32 Serpentine Parade
Now in Oud-Heverlee, near Leuven
Was I happy then? Yes, though uncertain of the future
Am I happy now? Yes
Kids then 0, though B was on her way by end of the year
Kids now 3
If you ask, I will give you a year.
Second speech of third scene (Act 1 Scene 3):
Old Queen of Navarre [who has just unwittingly accepted a gift of poisoned gloves]:
Thanks, my good friend.
Hold, take thou this reward.
Gives a purse
And so we are set up for the first of many many horrible deaths. (Have you noticed that the title character of every Marlowe play except this one dies horribly - I refuse to believe that Tamburlaine's death, though of natural causes, is easy - and this one, the exception is actually named after a massacre?) Unfortunately there's not really much else to say about it. The surviving text seems likely to be a reconstruction by actors or playgoers rather than Marlowe's own script, one page of which has apparently survived elsewhere. There is a sequence of bloody deaths, and hints that Henry III is rather close to his minions (which to me feels off-key and not explicit enough), and we end with Henry III murdered, giving way to the Protestant Henry IV.

It's all a bit breathless, perhaps because the events in question were so recent - the massacre which dominates the early scenes took place in 1572, Henry III was killed in 1589 and the play is thought to have been performed in 1593, when several of the characters portrayed on stage were still alive and well. Henry IV of course converted to Catholicism in July 1593, blunting the historical point, but by then Marlowe had been dead for two months so I think he can be forgiven for not writing that into the plot.

For what it's worth, I think The Massacre at Paris does locate Marlowe's religious views as not terribly exceptional for his time. The Catholics are baddies (with some ambiguity about Henry III) and the Protestants good guys. This is not the "plague on all their houses" approach of Tamburlaine or The Jew of Malta. The most effective scene for me is the one in which Ramus and two Huguenot colleagues are killed by the rampaging Catholics.

No Doctor Who fan can look at this play without comparing it to the 1966 First Doctor story, The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve. However the differences are so comprehensive that there is almost nothing useful to say. In Marlowe the massacre itself is at the start of the story; in Doctor Who at the end. Apart from the King, the Queen and the Admiral, there are no characters in common between the two - notably, the Abbot of Amboise, who is crucial to the Doctor Who story, does not appear in Marlowe (due to being completely fictional). There may be some resonance between the scholars Preslin in Doctor Who and Ramus in Marlowe, but even there the differences are more numerous: Preslin survives, Ramus is killed; Preslin is alone, Ramus has colleagues. I don't think that either John Lucarotti or Donald Tosh can have been very aware of the Marlowe play, which doesn't seem to have been revived until 1981.

Final thoughts

In summary then, after reading the entire surviving set of Marlowe plays: I regret that it took me so long to get around to reading them. I find Marlowe's style generally crystal clear and very energetic without being too florid. You know exactly what is going on, and why the characters are doing what they are doing. In particular, he's powerful at the ol' blank verse, and he loves spectacular stage effects. I would jump at the chance to see The Jew of Malta or Edward II on stage.

But in fact the ambiguity in some Shakespeare plays is what makes them more interesting. The Henry VI trilogy and a few others are inferior to most of Marlowe, but the majority of Shakespeare's works have moved on to be more complex and provocative - this becomes particularly relevant when you compare The Jew of Malta with A Merchant of Venice. And Shakespeare does more interesting stuff with his stagecraft - Marlowe characters strut around declaiming grand speeches, and then there may be a big bang and certainly someone will get killed; but there's a lot more going on with Shakespeare.

The two are clearly in dialogue with each other. I picked up a few references on my own, and I admire (and am convinced by) those who have tracked down many more tips of the hat to Marlowe in Shakespeare. And having read the Marlowe plays, I think I now have a better understanding of Shakespeare's intellectual setting and what he was trying to do - building a new vision of theatre which of course draws from many sources, but Marlowe being one of the strongest of them. However, I very much enjoyed reading Marlowe in his own right. He was only 29 when he died (as violently as one of his characters); what might he have achieved if he had lived longer?

Marlowe's Complete Plays was the top book on my shelves acquired in 2013. Next on that list is Henri Troyat's biography of Tolstoy.

Interesting Links for 02-09-2016


Great Fire of London

From Samuel Pepys' diary:
Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City...

So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson's little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge....

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another....

...to White Hall, and there up to the Kings closett in the Chappell, where people come about me, and did give them an account dismayed them all, and word was carried in to the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of Yorke what I saw, and that unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way.

...At last met my Lord Mayor in Canningstreet, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King's message he cried, like a fainting woman, "Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it."

...However, we had an extraordinary good dinner, and as merry, as at this time we could be....

So near the fire as we could for smoke; and all over the Thames, with one's face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops....

We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins....

...And got my bags of gold into my office, ready to carry away...
350 years ago, today.

Normally I like to give a flavour of what I am reading by excerpting the second paragraph of the third chapter, or for a play the second speech of the third scene. However the third scene of Edward II consists of only a single speech. I am therefore giving you Gaveston's opening speech to get in the mood:
“Enter GAVESTON, reading a letter.

Gav. My father is deceas'd. Come, Gaveston,
And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.
Ah, words that make me surfeit with delight!
What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston
Than live and be the favourite of a king!
Sweet prince, I come! these, thy amorous lines
Might have enforc'd me to have swum “from France,
And, like Leander, gasp'd upon the sand,
So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms.
The sight of London to my exil'd eyes
Is as Elysium to a new-come soul:
Not that I love the city or the men,
But that it harbours him I hold so dear,—
The king, upon whose bosom let me lie,
And with the world be still at enmity.
What need the arctic people love star-light,
To whom the sun shines both by day and night?
Farewell base stooping to the lordly peers!
My knee shall bow to none but to the king.
As for the multitude, that are but sparks,
Rak'd up in embers of their poverty,—
Tanti,—I'll fawn first on the wind,
That glanceth at my lips, and flieth away.
I'm often a bit suspicious of today's commentators trying to project their own interests onto past writers, often scrabbling in desperation from scraps of other evidence. I don't think Marlowe was an atheist, though I do think he interrogates the role of religion in society more than some did; I don't think Faustus is a coded commentary on Calvinism, though Marlowe presumably had his views.

But I do think that Edward II is consciously intended and written as an anti-homophobic text. There is zero room for ambiguity about the nature of the relationship between Edward and Gaveston (and later between Edward and the younger Spencer). Edward and Gaveston confess their love for each other to anyone who is listening (and many who are not). The opposition of the nobles to Gaveston's presence in the court is entirely about style rather than substance; in other words, it's purely that they object to the King having a male lover, rather than any policy decisions made by the King or influenced by Gaveston (or Spencer).

King Edward, of course, is not perfect - he is besotted to distraction with Gaveston; he is clearly being used by the Spencers in the middle section of the play; the immediate cause of his downfall is carelessness and hubris. But he gets some tremendous closing speeches as he awaits death in Berkeley Castle, and the message is very clearly that he is a martyr, who did not deserve what he got for being who he was. When I explained to young F that Marlowe is unusual in his portrayal of same-sex romance for his homophobic time, F replied with a pertinent question: "Why didn't he get killed, then?"

"He did," I replied.

August Books

The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe

Second speech of third scene (Act 2 Scene 1):
ABIGAIL: Now have I happily espied a time
To search the plank my father did appoint;
And here, behold, unseen, where I have found
The gold, the pearls, and jewels, which he hid.
I just loved this. Barabbas, the Jew of the title, is screwed out of his substantial property by the Christian rulers of Malta, and exacts revenge upon his enemies - at great personal cost, in particular as regards his own beautiful daughter Abigail. I paused after reading the first act, rather hoping that Barabbas would find some way of delivering his Christian oppressors into the hands of the Turks; well, without undue spoilers, I was more than satisfied by the way it ended.

Despite the grim subject matter (large numbers of violent deaths on and off the stage) there's also a deadpan humour about it, and I felt Marlowe was satirising both the cliches of bloody revenge (which I think are accepted rather less sceptically in Tamburlaine) and the unquestioning anti-Semitism of his times - Barabbas does end up as a villain, sure, but it is very clearly the Christians who have pushed him into it through state-sanctioned theft and humiliation - and if any religious group is subjected to cliche, it is the monks and nuns who were of course a focus of fear and disgust in Marlowe's England. Machiavelli introduces the play by saying, "I count religion but a childish toy", and I don't think that Marlowe is necessarily agreeing with him but I do think he is stressing that Christians can be every bit as evil as non-Christians (Machiavelli was also of course a tremendously loaded figure in Marlowe's England).

I found Barabbas a better rounded character than Shylock, to whom he clearly is closely related. Of course the Merchant of Venice is probably better in the end - the plot is less linear and more interesting, the other characters apart from the lead better rounded out - but the dialogue between the two plays is more equal than I had realised. And Barabbas gets one of the best lines in the whole of Marlowe, brought up before a tribunal of Christian clerics and accused of all manner of sins:
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
BARABBAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.
I'd really love to see this, more perhaps than any other of Marlowe's plays. I think the resonances with our own time could be played out in a way that would make an audience of today justifiably uncomfortable.
Second speech of third scene (Act 1 Scene 3):
[Faustus invokes Mephistopheles]
FAUSTUS: Sint mihi Dei Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen triplex Jehovae! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete! Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis. Quid tu moraris? per Jehovam, Gehennam et consecratum aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!
[“Be propitious to me, gods of Acheron! May the triple deity of Jehovah prevail! Spirits of fire, air, water, hail! Belzebub, Prince of the East, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, we propitiate ye, that Mephistophilis may appear and rise. Why dost thou delay? By Jehovah, Gehenna, and the holy water which now I sprinkle, and the sign of the cross which now I make, and by our prayer, may Mephistophilis now summoned by us arise!”]
This is a play with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning and the end are very good as Faustus makes his bargain with the devil and as he faces the inevitable price that he must pay. The middle is much weaker; having been granted immense power, all Faustus wants to do with it is play a series of silly practical jokes. The first of his targets is the Pope, but there doesn't seem to be any further point to Faustus's antics other than temporary humiliation of the powerful.

I guess it's partly an indication of the demands of the stage - "Chris baby, we've got these clowns in the company, you gotta write something for them, the crowd will love it" - but I felt that Goethe found more interesting things for his Faust to do, at least in Part I (Goethe's Part II rather disappears up its own erudition). Marlowe does try to turn this around to make it an Awful Warning about the price of knowledge and diabolical deals, but surely the average audience member will feel that we end up with a character flaw on Faustus's part, in that he doesn't seem to have considered how to use his great powers, rather than a general lesson for all of us.

Still, one can forgive a lot of Acts II, III and IV for the brilliance of Act I and especially Act V. At a rough estimate 95% of the well-known quotes from the entirety of Marlowe's works come from Faustus - including, I was surprised to see, "Che sera sera", but also the better known speeches: Faustus on Helen of Troy:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Mephistopheles, on Hell on Earth:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
As a lapsed historian of astronomy, I have to comment on one of the more obscure exchanges between Faustus and Mephistopheles, which I think Wikipedia gets wrong (and therefore others may get it wrong too):
FAUSTUS. How many heavens or spheres are there?
MEPHIST. Nine; the seven planets, the firmament, and the empyreal
FAUSTUS. But is there not coelum igneum et crystallinum?
MEPHIST. No, Faustus, they be but fables.
FAUSTUS. Resolve me, then, in this one question; why are not
conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses, all at one time,
but in some years we have more, in some less?
MEPHIST. Per inœqualem motum respectu totius.
FAUSTUS. Well, I am answered.
This is the secret of the universe, part of the new knowledge Faustus is getting as part of his deal. The Wikipedia entry suggests that Mephistopheles' answer to the third question ("Per inœqualem motum respectu totius" - "because of the unequal motion with respect to the whole") is evasive and demonstrates that he is fundamentally untrustworthy. I disagree; it is actually Faustus' question that is a really stupid one, and Mephistopheles' answer is pithy and perfectly reasonable and accurate. Perhaps it is from this point that Faustus realises that the secret of the universe is not really as interesting as it is cracked up to be?



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