Saturday, September 29, 2012

Don Quixote Rides Again!

Alonso Quijano, much like yours truly, is a stark raving mythopath. He reads so many chivalric novels, that he begins to lose touch with reality. At least, that's the way his family sees it. 

Alonso goes so far as to set out on a quest, under the rather marvelous name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. (Marketing is everything.) Every knight needs a squire, and Quixote recruits an affable farmer, Sancho Panza, to ride with him to doom or glory--and doom seems the more likely of the two.

Along the way, this knight wages war on fierce giants (who are actually windmills) and fights to defend the virtue of his beloved Lady Dulcinea (who is actually Aldonza, a woman of ill repute). But who has the clearer vision--Quixote's family, who perform cruel acts to try to "save" him, or Quixote himself, who works hard to see the best in everybody?

Title page, Fourth edition

The two books about Don Quixote's adventures were written by Miguel de Cervantes in early 17th century Spain, and they are considered to be among the greatest literary works of all time. The story has been retold in many forms, but my favorite is the 1964 musical, Man of La Mancha (Music: Mitch Leigh; Lyrics: Joe Darion; Book: Dale Wasserman).

The musical has so many great moments. I love it when Quixote dons a barber's basin and calls it the Golden Helmet of Mambrino. I love it when his family sings "I'm Only Thinking of Him," when it's so obvious they are thinking only of themselves. And I love it when Quixote keeps a sacred vigil before his "knighting" and sings "To Dream the Impossible Dream."

But my favorite moment comes near the end, when sadly, Quixote dies.  Someone addresses Aldonza by her name, and she corrects him. "My name," she says,  "is Dulcinea." It turns out that Quixote's strange vision has worked a transformation in this woman, in the way she now sees herself. Quixote's failed quest is a success after all.

Happy birthday to Miguel de Cervantes, born September 29, 1547. I'm grateful for the story he gave us--and for all the Quixotes who see the world differently from "normal" folk, who challenge our definitions of truth and reality, who still dare to dream the impossible dream.

Ever feel like you're tilting at windmills? Don't give up. You never know whose life is changing because of what you see when you look at them.

Stark Raving Mythopath highly recommends the original Broadway cast recording of Man of La Mancha.  I'm not sure if this recording is from that edition, but it's good. Enjoy: The Impossible Dream.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Paws for Reflection

Yo. My name is Tolkien, and yes, I hold you in disdain. Hey, I’m a cat. It's in my job description.

Week after week, my human neglects me while she putters around on this stupid blog. She should be brushing my fur, rubbing my belly, and—of course—feeding me! But oh no, she’d rather read some silly book or write some silly blogpost. Silly = book or blog without cats.

My pet human

So this week, I’m taking matters into my own paws. I’m gonna write the blinkin’ post. How hard can it be? Okay, the shift key is a little tricky.

My topic? 

Cats in story and myth. Duh. But where to begin?

Where better than with the Cheshire Cat, in Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll? When Alice asks which way she ought to go, the cat sagely replies, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." His best trick is appearing and disappearing at will--a talent all cats possess to some extent. At one point, he slowly fades until only his haunting grin remains. He’s arrogant and obnoxious. He’s my hero.

The Catwings books, by Ursula K. LeGuin, are about cats born with--wait for it--wings! In Catwings, the cats fly away from danger in the city, only to find other dangers in the country. The series continues with Catwings Return, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, and Jane on Her Own.  Flying would be so cool. The expression on Miss Mousie’s face? Priceless!

The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, clearly illustrates the relative cleverness of cats and humans. Two human children are home alone and bored. (So pathetic. Why don’t they just chase their tails?) It’s up to a visiting cat to entertain them by balancing a teacup, a glass of milk, a cake, three books, a goldfish, a rake, some toys, and his umbrella while he dances on a ball. This clever cat appears in six Seuss books.

The intelligence of cats is again recognized in The Cat Who… mystery series by Lilian Jackson Braun. These books--with titles like The Cat Who Moved a Mountain and The Cat Who Saw Stars--feature a news reporter named Jim Qwilleran and his Siamese cats, Koko and Yum-Yum. (Yum-Yum? Whatever.) The cats "dig up" clues to help solve mysteries. In an exemplary display of overindulgence, these cats are fed lobster, salmon, and crab. Required reading for all cat owners.

And then there’s Crookshanks, the true hero of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. After all, it was Hermione’s kitty who sniffed out Ron Weasley’s annoying pet rat Scabbers, the rat who turned out to be none other than the notorious Peter Pettigrew who betrayed Harry’s parents to their death. (But even to other cats, Mrs. Norris--Filch’s cat--is gag-on-a-hairball CREEPY. Petrification was a big improvement.)

Puss in Boots, a classic French fairy tale, shows once again that humans are helpless without their cats. In this story by Charles Perrault, a cat uses his feline wits to get wealth, position, and a princess for his penniless master. Although why he needs all that stuff when he's got a cat, I'll never know. 

It’s almost time for me to resume my life of pampering and privilege, but I must mention one other cat of legend and lore: Aslan—the great lion in The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. Aslan is the very model of majesty and amazingness. Best of all, he’s not a tame lion.  And though he is the greatest cat of all, he still looks at us and says, "Us lions." How cool is that?

Hark! Is that the heavenly anthem of food falling into my dish? Okay, I’m out of here. And really, what’s the big furry deal about blogging? All you need is the right subject. Duh.

That was easy. Let's eat. Duh.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Happy Hobbit Day!

September 22nd is Bilbo’s  birthday (and Frodo's too), a perfect day to revisit The Hobbit, prequel to The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy series by British author J. R. R. Tolkien.

Whereas The Fellowship of the Ring begins with “a long expected party,” a party of special magnificence for Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday, The Hobbit begins some sixty years earlier with “an unexpected party,” when a wizard drops in for tea and brings a few friends. Say a dozen or so. The year is 2941 of the Third Age of Middle-earth, and Bilbo is only 50 as this story begins--barely of age, in hobbit years.

Bilbo may be half our size and live in a hole in the ground, but I think most of us can relate to the creatures known as hobbits. They like to eat. They like creature comforts. They like to stay home and stay out of trouble.  Adventures? No thank you. Adventures, after all, are “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things” that make you late for dinner. But when courage and quick thinking are called for, hobbits can surprise even themselves by stepping up to save the day.

Creating a Hobbit Hole for film. . . .
After all, Gandalf must have seen something in the furry-footed halfling, or he would never have invited him on a perilous quest "far over the Misty Mountains cold" to reclaim the dwarves' lost treasure from a dragon’s lair. 

 Smaug falling into the lake, by Zs√≥fia Ziaja

And this year, there's even more to celebrate. Fans of the Tolkien fantasy stories are looking forward to the December release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first movie in a trilogy that brings The Hobbit to the big screen. And who better to direct this epic adventure than Peter Jackson, who did an amazing job directing The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago? 

The part of young Bilbo will be played by Martin Freeman, the actor who plays Dr Watson in Sherlock, the new BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. And some of our favorites from The Fellowship will be back as well—Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf,  Elijah Wood as Frodo, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Andy Serkis as Gollum.

For Tolkien fans, the release of the first Hobbit film is indeed a long expected party! In fact, there’s not a moment to waste. We only have three months to make our costumes, pack our snacks, and bone up on our Elvish runes. Um, did I mention packing our snacks? 

And of course, the best way to prepare for the movie is to reread The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, another Tolkien work that provides important background information. And in the true hobbit spirit, allow extra snacks for reading times--especially cakes and raspberry jam and apple tart, mince pies and cheese, pork pie and salad, cold chicken and pickles, and while you're up, you may as well put on some eggs. . . 

Meanwhile, here's the trailer for your enjoyment. (Click bottom right to view full screen.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Good Morning, Orion

Ye stars! which are the poetry of heaven!
--Lord Byron

One of my favorite signs of the coming of fall is the reappearance of Orion in the morning sky.

Orion is one of the most beloved and most recognizable constellations, and it’s easy to see why. He is made up of many bright stars, and it’s not too big a reach to picture him as a man, a hunter. 

Let’s face it. Some constellations look like this:

This is Epiphanachos, which represents a circus clown swallowing a barracuda while riding a unicycle and holding aloft a bathroom plunger. You see it, right?

Okay, so I made that up to show that many constellations don’t look much like anything at all. But practically everybody can spot Orion and the Big Dipper.

Orion's Belt

One of the trademarks of Orion, The Hunter, is a belt made of three bright stars. (I guess even constellations have to hold their pants up.)

As a child, I stared at those three stars from the window of my small bedroom. When an elderly friend died, I assigned her a star in Orion's Belt to help me remember her always. As time passed, I did the same for two more friends. That way I could look up and say, "There’s Mrs. Lunsford’s star. That one is for Miss Mary. And that one is for Miss Addie, the sweet lady who gave me the doll house."

I guess I was just carrying on an ancient tradition of commemorating people and stories with stars.

There are many (conflicting) versions of the myth of Orion, but it goes something like this. Orion was the son of Poseidon and the daughter of Minos, the King of Crete. Orion was a mighty hunter with many gifts. For example, he could walk on water because--after all--he was Poseidon's son. 

So he sauntered across the waves to the Island of Chios, where he got into a spot of trouble and was blinded by the ruler, Oenopion. Orion then stumbled his way to the far East, where the rising sun—Helios—healed him. 

Next Orion went on a hunt with the goddess Artemis. Something upset him, and he threatened to kill all the animals on the earth. Boys will be boys. But Mother Earth was not amused, and she sent a giant Scorpion who killed Orion. Zeus then placed Orion in the heavens as a constellation, along with his hunting dog, Sirius, and just to round out the story, the Scorpion.

The Hunter's legend probably won't be made into a Hallmark movie, but over time, Orion seems to have gone through a “sea-change”—or a sky change if you will. I think of him as a celestial friend, as a guardian of the earth--majestic, unshakable--keeping watch through the long winter months over the sons of men.

And I have a personal superstition that the first day in autumn that I see Orion will be a special day. In October of 1987, I first saw Orion through the nursery window, when I got up to check on my three sleeping sons. My belly was swollen with a fourth child, and I told myself that this would be the day I would give birth. By ten-thirty that night, I had a daughter.

This morning, September 5th, is my first Orion sighting for the year. The reason I'm up so early is that my daughter  texted me that she was on her way to the hospital to have her baby. My baby is having a baby--and I just can't seem to get back to sleep.

The Orion Nebula
I think it’s rather lovely that I saw Orion this morning, an echo of that sighting years ago when Mary Meghan was born. And yes, I do realize that a random group of stars can't really "watch over" me. But Orion reminds me that there is a Heavenly Guardian who never slumbers or sleeps, who always sees me, even when I can't see Him--a hunter who is ever searching for the hearts of men, to surprise them with unmerited favor and love.         

           The Lord made the stars,
               the Pleiades and Orion. 
           He turns darkness into daylight
              and day into night.
           He calls for the waters of the sea
              and pours them out on the earth.
           His name is the Lord.
                         --Amos 5:7-9, 
                           Good News Translation of the Bible

EPILOGUE: My granddaughter, Amanda Rose, was born later that day on September 5th. She is pictured here with her mom.

Mother, baby, and Grandma are all doing well! Is Amanda Rose another mythopath in the making? Let's just say that Grandma is going to do her part to introduce this child to the world's great stories.  :-)

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Seasons Tell a Story

According to Science, fall begins in the Northern Hemisphere on September 22, at 10:49 A.M. EDT. 

Seriously.  Not at 11:00 o'clock or even 10:50, but at 10:49 precisely.   

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course—even Science. But I think that autumn is a state of mind. It begins when I get the urge to whip up a pot of chili. Or to sip a mug of apple cider. Or maybe it starts the first morning I see Orion, or when the first clump of yellow leaves appears on the old maple tree. 

Fall has a kind of wistfulness that suddenly overtakes me, and I feel like writing a poem or going for a drive with no destination in mind. The beginning of fall, for me, is impossible to predict. It just happens.

I have a friend who says that fall begins the first day you hear an airplane fly overhead and suddenly realize that the sound is no longer muffled by humidity in the air. I love that bit of folk weather-lore, although I’m pretty sure Science would tap its foot and scowl.

Science does that sometimes. For Science has its seasons, and the heart has its own.

The changing seasons are endlessly fascinating to me—partly because they tell a story. In fact, they tell the story at the heart of all myth, the story of the hero’s journey.

Every hero must set out on a journey (symbolically in spring) and face dangers/perils (summer). And finally he must confront the ultimate test. He must face death (winter). And in some sense, he must die, but then go through a resurrection into a new life.

Sometimes the hero faces his worst fear and, against all odds, emerges victorious. (Yay!) Sometimes he dies to his old self or mindset, but emerges with a changed heart. (Hmmmm.) Sometimes he actually dies (Boo!), but he lives on in his work/dream/beloved. (Ahhhhh.) But at its core, the mythic journey is about facing death.

In the seasons we have the seeming death of nature, as autumn leaves fall and many animals migrate or hibernate and the earth is buried beneath a silent shroud of snow. I can’t help but feel a sense of dread as winter approaches, even though I know the story well, and I know that spring will come again.

According to Science, the seasons are a random byproduct of the earth getting knocked a little crooked—so that the axis of rotation isn’t perpendicular to the plane of revolution around the sun. Yeah, whatever.

But I think the seasons are a message to the people of this planet. “Hang in there. No matter how dark or cold or gray your world may become, there will always be a spring. Never be afraid to hope. Never give up.”

We are the travelers on this journey, heroes in the making, facing our fears--not always by choice. And on this journey, we have only our friends, our faith, and messages of hope. Some of these messages were written on clay tablets by the ancients, some by a blogger in Indiana only yesterday. Some were written as fiction, some as poems. And some were written into the fabric of the universe.

I love Science. Our friendship goes back to my childhood. But sometimes Science and I just have to give each other some space. 

So Science can hang around the lab and wait for autumn, while I go on a hayride or start shopping for the perfect pumpkin. Because I know fall is already here.