March 30th, 2011


March Books 29) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Volume 3, by Fumi Yoshinaga

I've had a stinking cold all day and stayed in bed, which did at least mean I finished a couple of books and started a couple more. And now apparently Livejournal is suffering the worst DDoS attack in its history, so I'm posting this by email and hoping it will appear once the gremlins have been purged from the intertubes.

Having enjoyed Volume 1 and Volume 2 of this series, I had fairly high hopes for this third instalment of the alternate history of a Japan where almost all men were wiped out by a mysterious plague in the 1630s. It didn't quite scratch my itches; the focus is much more on the court sexual politics of the Ōoku itself, and the relationship between Arikoto and the Lady Chiye (posing as the shōgun Iemitsu Tokugawa), in particular the political need for her to bear children by other men given Arikoto's apparent sterility. We do get some exploration of the social catastrophe wrought by the man-killing plague in Japan, and of why Chiye/Iemitsu's response, backed by her government, is to legitimise female succession rather than polygamy; I'd have liked more of that and less of the romance, but I guess I can't have everything. In any case, it is once again beautifully drawn and characterised, and with a welcome reduction in the brutal violence of the precious volume.

March Books 30) The Lays of Beleriand, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the third volume of the History of Middle Earth; it contains two unfinished poems tackling the two key narratives of the Silmarillion. The first, a version of the tale of Túrin told in alliterative blank verse, did not really appeal to me, and while I can see why Tolkien, with his background, wanted to give it a try, it's not very surprising that the effort did not come off. The Lay of Leithian, however, is a different matter - telling the story of Beren and Lúthien in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter, it has a tremendous energy that Tolkien never quite managed in the prose versions of the story, despite its strong personal significance for him. Also I had forgotten, or had never realised, just how kickass a heroine Lúthien actually is. The couplets are occasionally a little unpolished, but Christopher Tolkien reproduces a mock source-critical analysis by none other than C.S. Lewis suggesting that the least good bits are obvious interpolations by later scribes. J.R.R. Tolkien then revised the poem in line with Lewis' suggestions, but typically started expanding it from the middle again and never got around to finishing it.

Years later, it was part of the disorganised bundle of papers submitted to Unwin as material for a potential sequel to The Hobbit. Unwin's reader, who clearly had not been given much background, found the poem indigestible and urged instead an expansion of the prose summary of the rest of The Silmarillion. Tolkien wasn't up for this at that point, and wrote The Lord of the Rings instead. And thus was history made.