Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Henryk Sienkiewicz - the original master of the medieval epic

When I decided to look into Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novels, I first tried to find him at Chapters Bookstore. He was not to be found, not even his Quo Vadis. You will find any number of new authors’ books about the same period and even the same subject but none by the original master of the genre. I suppose I cannot try to wax too indignant because I only just discovered him myself.
I remember buying one or two of those new authors in the past and how disappointing they were, even before I had Sienkiewicz to compare them with. I remember one awful novel where the author expected us to admire and identify with the knightly hero by telling us he had won a fine horse by staying up all night playing dice. I stopped reading at that point.
In Sienkiewicz, as in O’Brian, or Tolkien, there is no striving, no striving at all. The author’s style is unobtrusive. His techniques are seamless. We forget about the narrator completely. We live in the emotions of the protagonists. We escape to another world. That’s ‘all’ there is to it. How easily it seems to be done! But how hard is to do well!
In my last post we had a look at an example of Sienkiewicz’s poetic style in Knights of the Cross. Now I will share with you an example of his action. I have condensed it down a little. God forgive me, because you should not edit such a masterpiece.
The scene:  Zbyszko, our hero, has taken up the Teutonic knight Rotgier’s general challenge to a duel to prove before God the Teutonic Order’s innocence in the affair of the abduction of Zbyszko’s young wife. Zbyszko believes the knight is lying and that the Order is in fact responsible for the abduction.

The fight was to take place in the castle yard, which was surrounded by a porch. When it was broad daylight, the prince and princess arrived together with their children and took their seats in the centre between the pillars, from where the whole yard could best be overlooked. Next to them were the principal courtiers, noble ladies, and the knighthood. All the corners of the vestibule were filled: the domestics gathered behind the wall which was made from the swept snow, some clung to the posts, and even to the roof. There the vulgar muttered among themselves: "God grant that our champion may not be subdued!"
They entered from opposite sides of the arena and halted at the barriers. Every one of the onlookers then held his breath, every one thought, that very soon two souls would escape to the threshold of the Divine Court and two dead bodies remain on the snow, and the lips, as well as the cheeks of the women turned pale and livid at that thought; the eyes of the men again gazed steadfastly at the opponents as at a rainbow, because every one was trying to forecast, from their postures and armament alone, which side would be victorious.
It was in some measure favorable for Zbyszko that he had chosen a combat with axes, because fencing with that kind of weapon was impossible. With long and short swords, with which it was necessary to know the strokes, thrusts, and how to ward off blows, the German would have had a considerable superiority. But even so, Zbyszko, as well as the spectators, recognized from his motions and management of the shield, that they had before them an experienced and formidable man, who apparently was not entering a combat of this kind for the first time. To each of Zbyszko's blows Rotgier offered his shield, slightly withdrawing it at the concussion, by which means even the most powerful swing lost its force, and could neither cleave nor crush the smooth surface. He at times retreated and at times became aggressive, doing it quietly, though so quickly that the eyes could hardly follow his motions.
Rotgier, who had fought in many wars and battles, either in troop or singly, knew by experience that there are some people, like birds of prey, who are born to fight, being specially gifted by Nature, who bestows all things, with what others only attain after years of training, and he at the same time observed that he was now dealing with one of those. He understood from the very first strokes that there was in this youth something as in a hawk, who sees in his opponent only his prey, and thinks of nothing but getting him in his claws. Notwithstanding his own strength, he also noticed that it was not equal to Zbyszko's, and should he get exhausted before succeeding in giving a final stroke, the combat with this formidable, although less experienced, stripling, might result in his ruin. Thus reflecting, he determined to fight with the least possible effort, drew the shield closer to him, did not move much either forward or backward, restricted his motions, and gathered all the power of his soul and arm for one decisive stroke, and awaited his opportunity.
The terrible fight lasted longer than usual. A deathlike silence reigned in the porches. The only sounds heard were the sometimes ringing and sometimes hollow blows of the sharp points and edges of the axes against the shields. Such sights were not strange to the princes, knights and courtiers; and nevertheless a feeling, resembling terror, seemed to clutch all hearts as if with tongs. It was understood that this was not a mere exhibition of strength, skill and courage, but that in this fight there was a greater fury and despair, a greater and more inexorable stubbornness, a deeper vengeance. On one side terrible wrongs, love and fathomless sorrow; on the other, the honor of the entire Order and deep hatred, met on this field of battle for the Judgment of God.

Photo of Krakow Castle courtyard by Galen Frysinger

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Henryk Sienkiewicz - the second greatest historical novelist of all time?

If you are a regular to the blog, you know that I am a Patrick O’Brian ‘orphan’ - see Patrick O’Brian – the greatest historical novelist of all time. I am a recovering chain-reader of his novels. I think of his main protagonists – Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin – less as fictional characters and more as people I know. Yes, I know, I need to get out more...

Whilst searching the web for other great historical novelists who might take my mind off O’Brian, I came across some promising recommendations regarding Henryk Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz is a Polish writer who is probably best known for his novel Quo Vadis and who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. (You can read a good Wikipedia overview of him here). When I discovered he had written several books set in the period of the Teutonic Knights’ crusades against pagan Lithuania, a subject that interests me, I decided to look into him. I was not disappointed.

I found an online version of his Knights of the Cross here. As with Patrick O’Brian, one only needs to read a few pages to know one is in the hands of a master. The feeling of historical authenticity, the effortless way our interest is aroused and maintained, the living, breathing characters faithful to their individual agendas, all of this reminded me of O’Brian, with a touch of Conan-Doyle. Let us not forget this is not a modern-day author. And all of this comes through in spite of being ‘once removed’ by a translation from the original Polish. In fact, in spite of the translation, there is a poetry in Sienkiewicz that I believe surpasses even O’Brian. (I will probably get some hate mail for saying that).
I will let you judge for yourself with the following passage, which I found particularly beautiful. Let us briefly set the stage: Zbyszko, our young knightly hero, is attending a church service at the court of the King Jagiello of Lithuania-Poland where he claps eyes on Queen Jadwiga for the first time.

Jadwiga entered through the vestry door also. Seeing her enter, the knights standing near the stalls, immediately kneeled, although mass had not begun, voluntarily paying her homage as to a saint. Zbyszko did the same; nobody in this assembly doubted that he really saw a saint, whose image would some time adorn the church altars. Besides the respect due to a queen, they almost worshipped her on account of her religious and holy life. It was reported that the queen could perform miracles. They said that she could cure the sick by touching them with her hand; that people who could not move their legs nor their arms, were able to do it, after they put on a dress which the queen had worn. Trustworthy witnesses affirmed that they had heard with their own ears, Christ speak to her from the altar. Foreign monarchs worshipped her on their knees and even the Order of the Knights of the Cross respected her and feared to offend her. Pope Bonifacius IX called her the pious and chosen daughter of the church. The world looked at her deeds and remembered that this child of the Andegavian house and Polish Piasts, this daughter of the powerful Louis, a pupil of the most fastidious of courts, and also one of the most beautiful women on earth, renounced happiness, renounced her first love and being a queen married a "wild" prince of Lithuania, in order to bring to the cross, by his help, the last pagan nation in Europe. That which could not be accomplished by the forces of all the Germans, by a sea of poured out blood, was done with one word from her. Never did the glory of an apostle shine over a younger and more charming forehead; never was the apostleship united with equal self-denial; never was the beauty of a woman lighted with such angelic kindness and such quiet sadness. (…)
Therefore there came to her people to beseech her, that she ask health for them; there came envoys from the provinces and from other countries, to ask that she pray according to their need, either for rain, or for fair weather for harvesting; for lucky moving time; for abundant fishing in the lakes or for game in the forests. Those knights, living in castles and ‘grodeks’ on the frontier, who according to the custom learned from the Germans, had become robbers or waged war among themselves, at the command of the queen, put their swords in their scabbards, released their prisoners without ransom, restored stolen herds and clasped hands in friendship. All kinds of misery, all kinds of poverty crowded the gates of her castle in Krakow. Her pure spirit penetrated human hearts, softened the hard lot of the serfs, the great pride of the lords, the unjust severity of the judges, and hovered like a dove of happiness, like an angel of justice and peace, over the whole country.

A Time for Us

For you, my dear.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Universal Dinner Lady

While we are on the subject of spiritual nourishment (see I Ching – nourishing the superior) and how food can bring us closer to God (see Nourishing our relationship with the Divine), I must tell you about the Universal Dinner Lady.

Who or what is a dinner lady? She is part of the culture of the British, but I’m not sure if she exists elsewhere or even if she still exists in Britain. When I was at school once upon a time, she was the lady in charge of order in the cafeteria. She was usually old, portly, grey-haired, and frowning. She made sure we unruly, snotty-nosed, rebellious little school kids stayed in our place in the line and she collected our ‘dinner tickets’. But most importantly, she had the life-giving power of decreeing which table could go for ‘seconds’ (second helpings).

So when I read the following passage from modern-day Taoist master Stephen Russel’s book ‘Manifesto’, it brought a smile to my lips.

Dancing with the Universal Dinner Lady
(or Universal Dinner Man, if you really want to be anal about it)

Manifesting the life you want is a dance you do with the Tao.That’s the point of it. It is, to be crude about it, a spiritual experience. You see it’s not the things, situations and events you manifest that bring you spiritual satisfaction, it’s watching the Tao in action as those things, situations and events spring into existence before your very eyes – that’s the blessing, that’s the point (if there is one).

But what is the Tao you dance with? (…) Traditionally, the Taoists of ancient times called it the mother of both existence and non-existence – note mother, not father. This alludes to its nurturing nature. But obviously the Tao is not really a woman, nor is it a man for that matter. This indicates that ancient Taoists were just as inclined to play silly games as post-modern ones, in which case come with me all the way into silliness here and picture this.

You’re standing in line in the school canteen, Oliver Twist-style, your empty plate in your hands, shuffling along as kids do, looking down at the floor or at the dodgy haircut of the person in front of you. All of a sudden you find yourself at the front of the queue, and looking up you’re startled and gratified to see that the dinner lady, far from the dowdy archetype, is actually a voluptuous, sensuous, full-lipped, sex-goddess of a woman wearing silk underwear, suspenders, stockings and heels beneath her apron (…) who smiles at you bountifully and says, ‘Yes? And what would you like, young woman (or man)?’ Her body language, facial expression and vocal tone suggest you can ask for anything – anything in the whole world – and she’ll heap it on your plate.

‘I want everything, ‘ you hear yourself say, ‘not just purity or peace of mind, Dinner Lady, but absolutely everything.’

And rather than calling you a greedy little git, she smiles even more munificently than before and says ‘You got it kid, but dance with me first!’ because she loves it when you ask for everything – it’s her nature to give, to generate – it’s what she’s here for. And she loves a good dance. And that’s why we love the Universal Dinner Lady so much.

Photo from norh 1997 at Flickr

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dark clouds over America - 3 million poor souls not worth counting

I came across the following video at one of my regular financial haunts, Danielle Park’s Juggling Dynamite. You may remember Danielle as the ethical financial advisor.

The interviewee is economist Stephen Roach. (That reminds me of a joke about economists, but I digress). Mr. Roach works for Morgan Stanley and after listening to him in this interview my opinion of Morgan Stanley has gone up a couple of notches. Mr. Roach rightly points out that the unemployment figures released recently of 9.7% take no account of the three million U.S. citizens who have given up looking for a job. “For some bizarre reason,” says Mr. Roach, “the U.S. statisticians do not count these poor souls as unemployed.” The actual unemployment rate is 11.5%.

So not only are detainees ‘not persons’, neither are the discouraged jobless. What happened to equality and justice?

Speaking of justice, Mr. Roach ironically ends his analysis with the injunction that, because of the ‘noise’ in the unemployment data, “It’s important for your viewers to keep watching the pithy commentators you get on your show for clarity, truth and justice.”

In other words, don’t expect it from your administration’s statisticians. Damn, I like that guy.

OK, here is my economist joke, but in honour to Mr. Roach, let’s make it a statistician joke instead, it’s much more à propos:

There are three kinds of government statisticians: those who can count, and those who can’t.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nourishing our relationship with the Divine

In my last post I Ching – nourishing the superior we talked about nourishing the body and the mind as extolled by the I Ching in two related hexagrams. So I was not at all surprised when I read the following paragraph from Rabbi Orlitzky’s Life’s Daily Blessings:

Savoring food

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, at whose word all things come into being. General blessing for food

This is the blessing to be used “when in doubt”, or when food doesn’t fit into any category of traditional foods. It recognizes God as the source of all. While we usually think of prayer or ritual – or even the study of sacred texts – as vehicles to be used to bring us into relationship with the Divine, this blessing clearly demonstrates how food can bring us closer to God. Just by uttering this simple phrase, we acknowledge God’s role in the world and in our lives.

Everything we receive in this world is a gift. Even our bodies. Even the air we breathe. Someone said everything we receive in this world comes from other people. That is mostly true, but other people come from God, so even their gifts originate in God. We rarely stop to think about this, so saying ritual blessings for what we receive, as in the Jewish tradition, seems to me a good way to remind ourselves to be grateful.

Rabbi Orlitzky goes on (italics mine):

So if you are about to eat something, especially if you are not sure which blessing might apply or you are not sure of the nature of the food you are about to eat (for example, did it come from a tree or grow on the ground?), don’t rush through the blessing in order to get to the food. Savor its words, just as you might the food you are about to eat. Both have the potential to nourish and sustain you.

So here again we have the advice we encountered in the I Ching : our task is to nourish the body and the mind and to savor both without seeking to rush things. This is how to have the right attitude in life and the right relationship to the Divine. The rain will fall when it is ready, and when it does, we too will be ready.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Ching - nourishing the superior

I have never, and I mean never, consulted the I Ching without it being spot on in its commentary on my problem and supplying me with extraordinarily simple but meaningful insight. So I consulted the I Ching again this week concerning certain persistent demons I wished to expunge.

Yes, I have demons. Do you think I apply effortlessly all the principles of philosophy I talk about here? Certainly not. Some of them I apply to some degree, for some length of time, with some success. Some things I have improved enormously; other things are stubbornly hard to overcome. But at least I am thinking about them. Sometimes.

So it came about this week that I asked the I Ching to shed some light on a difficult problem and as an answer it gave me hexagram 27. I / The Corners of the Mouth (Providing nourishment) changing with time into hexagram 5. Hsu / Waiting (Nourishment). That’s quite a lot of nourishment going on, you say. Or not. Or should be, as the case may be. Yes, it is.

Again, the I Ching absolutely hit the nail on the head without trying. From the Wilhelm/Baynes edition:

Perseverence brings good fortune.
Pay heed to the providing of nourishment
And to what a man seeks
To fill his own mouth with.

In bestowing care and nourishment, it is important that the right people should be taken care of and that we should attend to our own nourishment in the right way…. Mencius says about this:

If we wish to know whether anyone is superior or not, we need only observe what part of his being he regards as especially important. The body has superior and inferior, important and unimportant parts. We must not injure important parts for the sake of the unimportant, nor must we injure the superior parts for the sake of the inferior. He who cultivates the inferior parts of his nature is an inferior man. He who cultivates the superior parts of his nature is a superior man.

Here of course it is not merely about nourishing the body, though it means that as well, but about nourishing the mind and the soul. As we care about what we put into our mouths and into our bodies, so we must care about what we allow to enter our minds and our souls, because what enters there will decide whether we function well and grow and thrive or not. If we are not careful what we let in, perhaps we may even get sick.
I went on to look at hexagram 5. Waiting:

All beings have need of nourishment from above. But the gift of food comes in its own time, and for this one must wait…. Waiting is not mere empty hoping. It has the inner certainty of reaching the goal. Such certainty alone gives that light which leads to success….


Clouds rise up to heaven:
The image of WAITING.
Thus the superior man eats and drinks,
Is joyous and of good cheer.

When clouds rise in the sky, it is a sign that it will rain. There is nothing to do but wait until the rain falls. It is the same in life when destiny is at work. We should not worry and seek to shape the future by interfering in things before the time is ripe. We should quietly fortify the body with food and drink and the mind with gladness and good cheer. Fate comes when it will, and thus we are ready.

Here the message of the previous hexagram is reinforced: carefully nourish the body and the mind, the important and the superior parts. This is the way to cooperate fully and efficiently with the forces at work and takes away the worry and the stress and the striving. Let the Tao take the strain.
I personally also read into these lines the message ‘stop trying to get something you haven’t paid for yet’ or ‘stop trying to jump the line for the things you desire’. In other words, wait for them, prepare for them coming, be ready, and when they come they will be yours.

So, based on the timeless wisdom of the I Ching, I made a resolution about my problem. The thing with resolutions is if you make too many that you don’t keep, they lose their power. So this one I wrote down in the form of a covenant. This resolution is too important not to keep. Now I will view everything I do through the lens of ‘is this cultivating the important and superior parts of my nature, or the opposite?’

I hope you found this helpful. I encourage you to discover the power of the I Ching for yourself. It will be one of the most important steps you will ever take.

Photo by lapie

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ship's log - March 2010

The light is coming back, the cold retreats, our hearts are lifted. My Ipod I Ching app has renewed my interest in the book. The hexagram 19. Lin / Approach is associated with this time of the year, after the winter solstice when the warmth and light of the sun returns.

Spring is approaching. Joy and forbearance bring high and low together. Success is certain. But we must work with determination and perseverance to make full use of the propitiousness of the time.

This is a propitious time of the year to make resolutions: the change of air and aspect helps us to break with the winter of the past and follow the light of our new goals.

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond