Category Archives: Fantasy

I really do think that my Hogwarts invite went missing someplace

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I just noticed I tend to read a lot of books that were movies first or movies now. I suppose it’s my mixed obsession with cinema and literature–the two go together forever and forever and shall not be divided now.

Princess Bride is one of those unexpected books. William Goldman is, among writey-things; a screenwriter, playwright, and a fantastic novel scribbler. From the  beginning, where he tells you how his father read him The Princess Bride when he was ten and how he thinks that the book is a lesson about the unfairness of life, to the end, where he lets the whole thing close on a down note with Westley and Buttercup quarreling and the Prince pursuing them for the rest of their lives – Goldman delivers a really wonderful fairy tale of humor and irony.

Everyone has seen the movie. Everyone over the age of 25 anyway. We all know Miracle Max and Inigo’s famous catchphrase (which I will not even repeat here since its been worn to death) but the book has the happy extras that the movie doesn’t. It tells you about Inigo’s childhood, and his father’s unfair death at the hands of the six fingered man, and how he trains to become the best swordsman in the world…which then makes him depressed when he can’t find the six-fingered man to kill him…and then makes him bored being the best swordsman in the world, so he becomes a drunk.

Philosophical thought; Perhaps all drunks are just really the best something or other in their worlds, seeking revenge for old hurts and worn out by it

The book gives you the history and the motivations of each character; Fezzik’s strength, Vizzini’s brains, Miracle Max’s disgrace, Buttercup’s parents who constantly quarrel, and the King’s mumbling. There are scenes in the book, like the Zoo of Death and a lot of stuff concerning the Dread Pirate Roberts, which are fan-nnn-tastic, but not in the movie. That alone makes it worth reading.

It reminds me a lot of The Last Unicorn. Unicorn is written with tongue -in-cheek and so is Bride; a satirical fairy-tale. There are references to modern-day things, even though the whole thing is set in Renaissance-era. Goldman’s introduction is fictional. His creation of the fictional author S. Morgenstern is a literary device to add a layer to the novel. He uses the name again to write a second novel called The Silent Gondoliers (which I haven’t read yet, but looks interesting) None of the autobiographical stuff in the book is strictly true, although there is that overlay of truth mixed into it.

So basically the book begins with a list of the most beautiful women in the world. One by one, they all drop off and Buttercup, who starts out as barely in the running, grows and improves daily, until she falls in love with the farm boy, Westley, and it skyrockets her into the top five. When he goes to seek his fortune, he is captured by pirates and Buttercup (and I love this) speculates about how he may have been killed, then goes into her room and shuts the door. A month later she comes out and, because of sorrow, is now the most beautiful woman in the world. But she doesn’t give a damn.

The prince Humperdink tells her she will marry him and she asks him to kill her instead, but he doesn’t. Instead he explains that he needs a gorgeous wife to improve his social status and popularity and she will do nicely. He doesn’t care whether she loves him or not. So she agrees.

The prince cleverly plots to make the people love Buttercup, and then have her kidnapped and murdered, inciting war with the neighboring country- because the Prince is fond of two things; war and hunting.

Enter the trio of the giant, Spaniard and the dwarf, who kidnap Buttercup. Enter Westley, disguised as the Man in Black, and pretending to be the Dread Pirate Roberts. The rest of the book follows pretty much as the movie suggests. There’s a great more detail about Miracle Max, and why he got fired, and how pissed he is about it. There is a lot of interjections by William Goldman and ‘S. Morgernstern’ to explain things or comment on a particular passage.

At one point, there is even the suggestion that the reader write the publishers a letter and ask for the ‘love scene’ between Buttercup and Westley when they reunite. William Goldman explains that ‘S. Morgernstern’ declined to write a love scene because he thought people – even characters in a book – deserve their privacy. So Goldman wrote one, but his publishers argued that he couldn’t go around sticking his own words into a book written by someone else. I did a little research to see if I could find some info on the website http://www.princessbridebook.com and, sure enough, here is what you get when you put in your email address:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for sending in and no, this is not the reunion scene, because of a certain roadblock named Kermit Shog.

As soon as bound books were ready, I got a call from my lawyer, Charley–(you may not remember, but Charley’s the one I called from California to go down in the blizzard and buy The Princess Bride from the used-book dealer). Anyway, he usually begins with Talmudic humor, wisdom jokes, only this time he just says “Bill, I think you better get down here,” and before I’m even allowed to say a ‘why?’ he adds, “Right away if you can.”

Panicked, I zoom down, wondering who could have died, did I flunk my tax audit, what? His secretary lets me into his office and Charley says, “This is Mr. Shog, Bill.”

And there he is, sitting in the corner, hands on his briefcase, looking exactly like an oily version of Peter Lorre. I really expected him to say, “Give me the Falcon, you must, or I’ll be forced to keeel you.”

“Mr. Shog is a lawyer,” Charley goes on. And this next was said underlined: “He represents the Morgenstern estate.”

Who knew? Who could have dreamed such a thing existed, an estate of a man dead at least a million years that no one ever heard of over here anyway?

“Perhaps you will give me the Falcon now,” Mr. Shog said. That’s not true.

What he said was, “Perhaps you will like a few words with your client alone now,” and Charley nodded and out he went and once he was gone I said, “Charley, my God, I never figured–” and he said, “Did Harcourt?” and I said, “Not that they ever mentioned” and he said, “Ooch,” the grunting sound lawyers make when they know they’ve backed a loser.

“What does he want?” I said.

“A meeting with Mr. Jovanovich,” Charley answered.

Now, William Jovanovich is a pretty busy fella, but it’s amazing when you’re confronted with a potential multibillion-dollar lawsuit how fast you can wedge in a meeting. We trooped over.

All the Harcourt Brass was there, I’m there, Charley; Mr. Shog, who would sweat in an igloo he’s so swarthy, is streaming.

Harcourt’s lawyer started things: “We’re terribly terribly sorry, Mr. Shog. It’s an unforgivable oversight, and please accept our sincerest apologies.”

Mr. Shog said, “That’s a beginning, since all you did was defame and ridicule the greatest modern master of Florinese prose who also happened to be for many years a friend of my family.”

Then the business head of Harcourt said, “All right, how much do you want?”

Biiiig mistake.

“Money?” Mr. Shog cried. “You think this is petty blackmail that brings us together? Resurrection is the issue, sir. Morgenstern must be undefiled. You will publish the original version.” And now a look at me. “In the unabridged form.”

I said, “I’m done with it, I swear. True, there’s just the reunion scene business we printed up, but there’s not liable to be a rush on that, so it’s all past as far as I’m concerned.”

But Mr. Shog wasn’t done with me: “You, who dared to defame a master’s characters are now going to put your words in their mouths? Nossir. No, I say.”

“It’s just a little thing,” I tried; “a couple pages only.”

Then Mr. Jovanovich started talking softly. “Bill, I think we might skip sending out the reunion scene just now, don’t you think?” I made a nod.

Then he turned to Mr. Shog. “We’ll print the unabridged. You’re a man who is interested in immortality for his client, and there aren’t as many of you around in publishing as there used to be. You’re a gentleman, sir.”

“Thank you,” from Mr. Shog; “I like to think I am, at least on occasion.”

For the first time, he smiled. We all smiled. Very buddy-buddy now.

Then, an addendum from Mr. Shog: “Oh, yes. Your first printing of the unabridged will be 100,000 copies.”

* * * *

So far, there are thirteen lawsuits, only eleven involving me directly. Charley promises nothing will come to court and that eventually Harcourt will publish the unabridged. But legal maneuvering takes time. The copyright on Morgenstern runs out in early ’78, and all of you who wrote in are having your names put alphabetically on computer, so whichever happens first, the settlement or the year, you’ll get your copy.

The last I was told, Kermit Shog was willing to come down on his first printing provided Harcourt agreed to publish the sequel to The Princess Bride, which hasn’t been translated into English yet, much less published here. The title of the sequel is: Buttercup’s Baby: S. Morgenstern’s Glorious Examination of Courage Matched Against the Death of the Heart.

I’d never heard of it, naturally, but there’s a Ph.D. candidate in Florinese Lit up at Columbia who’s going through it now. I’m kind of interested in what he has to say.

–William Goldman

P.S.

I’m really sorry about this, but you know the story that ends, “disregard previous wire, letter follows?” Well, you’ve got to disregard the business about the Morgenstern copyright running out in ’78. That was a definite boo-boo but Mr. Shog, being Florinese, has trouble, naturally, with our numbering system. The copyright runs out in ’87, not ’78.

Worse, he died. Mr. Shog I mean. (Don’t ask how could you tell. It was easy. One morning he just stopped sweating, so there it was.) What makes it worse is that the whole affair is now in the hands of his kid, named–wait for it–Mandrake Shog. Mandrake moves with all the verve and speed of a lizard flaked out on a riverbank.

The only good thing that’s happened in this whole mess is I finally got a shot at reading Buttercup’s Baby. Up at Columbia they feel it’s definitely superior to The Princess Bride in satirical content. Personally, I don’t have the emotional attachment to it, but it’s a helluva story, no question.

Give it a look-see when you have a chance.

–August, 1978

P.P.S.

This is getting humiliating. Have you been reading in the papers about the trade problems America is having with Japan? Well, maddening as this may be, since it reflects on the reunion scene, we’re also having trade problems with Florin, which, it turns out, is our leading supplier of Cadminium, which, it also turns out, NASA is panting for.

So all Florinese-American litigation, which includes the thirteen law suits, has officially been put on hold.

What this means is that the reunion scene, for now, is caught between our need for Cadminium and diplomatic relations between the two countries.

But at least the movie got made. Mandrake Shog was shown it, and word reached me he even smiled once or twice. Hope springs eternal.

–May, 1987

* * * *

Use of this excerpt from _The Princess Bride_ by William Goldman may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1973, 1998, 2003 by William Goldman. All Rights Reserved.

So there you have it. A sample of his writing and saucy imagination. Now go read the book.

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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

“A mortal who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes invisible permanently…”

~Tolkien

These books of mine are worn to tatters. Of course, since the movies came out, everybody knows the story, but for me, I am of the superior group that discovered Tolkien long before Peter Jackson took hold of the books and gave them his vision. Not saying anything about his vision; which was very good and reasonably true to the story, but I read these over and over from the time I was eleven and Tolkien’s initials are tattooed on my back mainly because I consider him a genius and I enjoy having geniuses initials tattooed on my person.

In other words, I love him best, but not for reasons you might think.

His writing style is ver’ ver’ British, of course. He hems and hahs his way through the story using lengthy dialogue and even lengthier description. Modern audiences usually find him a trifle dull. Truthfully, Fellowship is the dullest book of the series. Not a lot of action goes down for the first 300 or so pages, but it sets up the story so we know whats going on after Bilbo takes off and Gandalf discovers the true nature of the Ring and Gollum’s history.

I really like it when Tolkien is describing the subtle changes that are slowly touching on the Shire. Strangers are passing through, Elves are leaving Middle-Earth, all the evil creatures are gathering, and Mordor is rising from the ashes.

This is why I love Tolkien. He is king of tension and drama. Fellowship is the book which gave the movie all of its best lines. I wish it need not have happened in my time, says Frodo and, I will take the ring, though I do not know the way. Every time I read this book I am quite abruptly transported to a true master storyteller’s world. I do not use that phrase lightly. Master. Storyteller.

Before Tolkien, I’m not sure there really were master storytellers who could invent a story, base it cleverly in mythology, and then spend the rest of their life perfecting it. John Ronald did spend most of his life creating Middle Earth and telling himself, then us, its history and legends. Are there writers like this any more? In our world of NYT’s cheap bestsellers and so much fantasy fiction that just seems over-dramatic, clapped together without much thought, and fails to touch us — to send us — in any way.

I don’t read much fantasy fiction, which some of you might find surprising. But the snobbish truth is because I find so much of it lacking. Tolkien was Master, the others that came after him could never emulate him, no matter what the publicists say. There are others, sure, like Robin McKinley and Gregory McGuire, who re-work fairy-tales and blow everyone out of the water with their originality and wonderful language. And I love them. I do. I love Robin McKinley’s books so much it amounts to an obsession. But not in the same way. I admire a lot of different kinds of writers, but let’s just say that what I have read after JRR, when it comes to a stab at epic fantasy, I might enjoy on a surface level, but I would never get the author’s initials tattooed on me.  We’ll leave it there.

My favorite legend of Tolkien goes as follows:

Tolkien spent most of his life putting the story of Beren and Luthien into different forms. The story goes that Beren is a mortal man who falls in love with Luthien, an elf-maiden. Her father disapproves and sends Beren on some impossible tasks. After many difficulties, the two lovers are united and live out their lives as mortal.

Tolkien made it into an epic poem that he never finished. He wrote the story of it into the Lord of the Rings. It was the central part to his life; he based it on many things; Welsh legend and Norse mythology, and his own love story.

Tolkien and his wife’s headstones read as follows:

Edith Mary Tolkien, Luthien, 1889-1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973

I suppose, when I think of Tolkien as a genius, and when I worship him as a master storyteller, it’s really the idea of him having such a place to write from; a story that grew and developed until it consumed his world and he became it. It’s what separates him from other writers. I know that fantasy writers tend to half-live their works. It is necessary to spend some time in your dream world, so that you can translate it for the people who dont speak the language. Tolkien had a passion for his world that carried over into this one. That’s why he’s great. That’s why he speaks to us, decade after decade. It’s why I class him as the Master, like his Tom Bombadil; Master of wood and water, but JRR Tolkien was Master of the Imagination and the Pen.

“Just say it,” said Spencer Tracy to a young actor: “Just SAY the words.” In other words, don’t say the lines-say the sentences. It was the key to his acting. Tracy was considered one of the finest actors of all time because he understood the crucial thing about acting…and not only understood it, but could do it as well; Speak the lines as if you thought them first. As if the lines were your words and no one else’s.

Tolkien is kind of like that, with his writing. He just tells the story. Just tells it, as if he knew it, before he knew anything else; as if it were imprinted on his heart.

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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The story of King Arthur, but with a twist. The story is told – at long last – from the woman’s point of view. All I can say about that is, it was about time.

The book is huge. I once had it open on the bar and a bar patron came over, leaned his nose close to the page for a moment or two, looked up at me, squinting, and said seriously: “Is that the Bible?”

It is not. But it does cover three generations. Morgan Le Fay(really named Morgaine) the bad girl of the Arthur legend, is our heroine. As she navigates her way from child to woman to High Priestess of the Holy Isle of Avalon, she tells the story of King Arthur and his knights from her perspective. The story is one of a King put on a throne by the scheming of Avalon. In Avalon, they worship the Goddess, but in Christian Britain, the gradual spread of the worship of only one God is seen as a threat.

The Merlin (he’s always called ‘THE Merlin”, not “Merlin”, because apparently, Merlin is the name for the High Druid of Avalon. There’s a High Druid and a High Priestess. Got it? Good.) So the Merlin and the High Priestess, Viviane, arrange for Ingraine (mother of Morgaine) to meet Urther Pendragon and the two of them get together and create Arthur; daughter of the Holy Isle and the King of Britain bearing a child to rule both lands equally…that’s the idea. And a fine idea it is, until the fates take a hand and everything goes terribly caterwampus.  I think what the real key of the book might be is that Ingraine’s first marriage is something of a mistake, and therefore Morgaine is sort of the bane of the story. If she hadn’t been born, Arthur would not have become the legend he turned into. He would have been beloved and all that, but probably just died of old age, with no complications about religious principles. So focusing on Morgaine, you really see why the story went the way it did.

But Ingraine did get married at fifteen to the Duke of Cornwall, and as a result, Morgaine is Arthur’s half-sister and eventual prime foe in the matter of the Christian God versus the Goddess. It all kicks into gear whenViviane comes to Ingraine and Arthur’s court and discovers that Morgaine has the Sight…the old Scotland second sight….and she takes Morgaine back to Avalon to start training her to eventually become High Priestess. Arthur is put in the care of a foster family, to protect him from unsavory people after the throne, and the sister and brother don’t see each other for years.

It’s in Avalon where you learn that the road to being a priestess is not particularly fun, but all in all, it’s better than being married or in an convent. (The only two options for women in those days) Morgaine learns all about the Mysteries, gets painted with a half moon on her forehead, and just when she’s feeling secure about her future as Lady of the Lake, she meets Lancelot, Viviane’s son, and falls in love with him.

All the women fall in love with Lancelot. It’s like bowling pins dropping, one after the other. But here’s the rub, Lancelot is two things: He’s a warrior, first and foremost, and has no desire to settle down and have kids, and he’s sexually confused. Although he runs off with Guinevere – ASIDE: She’s a pill. She’s the most annoying character in the whole book and you basically want to sock her about every other chapter. All she does is pray, cry, and have miscarriages. She’s a shut-in. She’s afraid of everything. She has absolutely no spine. She gets kidnapped and raped and even that is boring. She’s so freakin’ useless. Basically, she’s just in the way from start to finish and you keep rooting for her to just resign being Queen and go join a nunnery or something. But she waits until she’s ruined everything, and then she goes off to her convent. Ironically, this is when you really start to like her – when she has gained some life experience and finally starts questioning some of her neurotic beliefs. The most frustrating thing about it is that it’s not even her fault she hangs around ruining everything. She’s a pawn in the story, along with the rest of the helpless females.

What was I saying? Oh yes, Lancelot. He does run off with Guinevere, but just ’cause by that time, he’s forced to (the two get caught in bed and it’s either stay and be hanged or run away) but all along, his one true love is Arthur – his besty. So he’s gorgeous and perfect and all that, and he breaks hearts right and left, but deep down he’s all conflicted because he’s gay gay gay.

So begins the long, lurid tale of sex, kings, religion, paganism, and more sex.

Unknowingly, Morgaine is given to the Beltane fires…a ritualistic ceremony where she plays goddess to some guy they are crowning King…they had a lot of little Kings in England, so she didn’t think much about it. Plus she hadn’t been out of Avalon in like, ten years. To her intense horror (and the reader’s) in the morning she discovers she has slept with her own little brother, Arthur.

Viviane tells her its all good and somehow rationalizes it like, “He’s your HALF-brother, and you were the GODDESS,” or some crap like that, but Morgaine is at first furious at being a pawn in Viviane’s plan, and then traumatized to find herself pregnant. This is what Viviane was hoping for… to create a royal bloodline from the two of them to eventually rule England. Creepy. But true. But Morgaine won’t have it. She leaves Avalon and goes to live with her Aunt Morgause in the North Country. While she’s there she has the baby, a boy, and then, feeling conflicted about the fact that he is both her son and her nephew, she leaves him to her Aunt’s care and goes off see what her brother is doing as the new King of England.

Bradley took ten years to write this book. Her research on early Britain is astounding. All of it is historically accurate. Well, the Roman, Saxon, Britain bits, anyway. She mixes in the legend of King Arthur, and old Welsh legends, and expands on it. Brilliant woman. Brilliant writer!

The novel touches on the depths of belief. In the end it asks: How much of what we believe is subjective to our own experience? The answer, of course, is like all answers to that question: It is subjective to our own experience.

Basically Morgaine spends her whole life fighting for the equal representation of the Goddess alongside the Christianity that is overflowing Britain. Many of her allies end up quietly giving up, as Christianity shows no signs of receding. Essentially its the story of ‘the times they are a’ changin'” and most people are willing to change with it, but Morgaine is a Priestess and its her personal job to make sure her belief system doesn’t die out, and that Avalon doesn’t fade into the mists. In the end, she does not really achieve what she hoped, but she realizes that it doesn’t matter too much. The Goddess will exist whether people believe in her or not.

I really admire the way Bradley leaves you doubting that any of the rituals, mysteries, and God(s) or Goddess(s) are even worth all the struggle and fight that the main characters go through. If it weren’t for her beliefs, Morgaine would not have followed the path she did; running off because she’s pissed at Viviane. Leaving her baby son with that unscrupulous Morgause, and spending all her time trying to fit in at court. If it weren’t for the conflict of paganism and Christianity, Arthur would not have followed his path; trying to please everyone, refusing to put aside his barren wife, etc. etc.

The whole time, while you are reading, you want to tell them all to just get over it already and give it up. (And put that stupid Guinevere in a convent already!) But I suppose that’s why I like the book so much. It sucks you in and makes you feel like you are really a part of the story. I mean, if the characters infuriate you and you want to sit them all down and say “Hey, why all the fuss about this? Don’t you get that it all ends up becoming a myth anyway?” that’s the sign of an excellent novel.

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The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Two of my favorite books tonight/today because I feel like it. Both are the base for popular cult films.

Last Unicorn is one of those books that IS like the movie. There were differences of course. Singing and animation and a few key scenes left out. Re-phrasing of dialogue was practiced. But all in all – and I think it’s because Beagle either wrote the script or helped write it, the movie remained remarkably similar to the novel.

Unicorn is one of those books (and I think I’ve said this before) reading it makes you fall in love with it, but in the end, if you are me, you despair a little because you know you will never, never, never write anything as good. Every other sentence is splendid and like a note of music. It all goes together to create a brilliant symphony of color and sound and emotion.

From the dedication in the first page: To the memory of Dr. Olfert Dapper, who saw a wild unicorn in the Maine woods in 1673, and for Robert Nathan, who has seen one or two in Los Angelos to the last page, which ends with a song, the book is riveting and fascinating.

Now before you go rushing off to google Dr. Olfert I have to tell you that I have already done it and it’s rather disappointing. Olfert never left his native Holland, even though he was a writer and ‘expert’ on distant lands. (How is that possible? you may query. Rightfully so. It was 1670. Most people were not well-traveled. To be fair, Dr Dapper never said HE saw one, he merely describes the unicorn in it’s natural habitat.)

It seems that Beagle was probably trying to be more humorous than not, and that in itself is not surprising as the whole book is a satirical fairy tale.

Our story begins with the Unicorn, who lurks about her trees and small forest and makes everything always spring. One day, she eavesdrops (and eavesdroppers never hear anything good of themselves) on two hunters one of whom is describing how she must be the Last Unicorn in the world since no one has seen a unicorn since his grandmother was a young girl.

The Unicorn begins to think about this and be unhappy as she debates on whether or not to go and look for the others. She hates to leave, but of course she does go and so begins our story. Along the way she is captured by a traveling carnival run by a sham witch who slaps a fake horn on her so the villagers can see her.

Schmendrick the magician is the carnival’s employee, and he alone sees the Unicorn for what she is and frees her. He tags along with her and they run across Molly Grue, who is a satire of Maid Marion, but who can also see the Unicorn. Little by little, the three make their way to King Haggard’s country and the castle that houses the Red Bull.

Not an energy drink!

Although an interesting comparison.

The quote is from King James.

“His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.”–Deuteronomy 33:17

The Red Bull has rounded up the Unicorns and herded them into the sea where they float around on the tide for King Haggard’s delight since he is this guy who NOTHING makes happy except watching Unicorns. Hes one disgruntled King. He only enjoys his life when other people are miserable. The three get attacked by the Bull and Schmendrick the bumbling magician uses his brief grasp of magic to turn the Unicorn into a woman.

Here is one of my favorite parts of the whole book. The Unicorn is lamenting her change into something mortal and wonders how anything that can die can be truly beautiful. In answer Schmendrick tells them the story of his own life.

Because of his inept ability to practice magic, his teacher explains to him that he is either the worst failure in the world or the most amazing magician that he, the teacher, has ever seen. In order to find out, the teacher casts a spell on Schmendrick, giving him immortality until he figures out his skill. When he can discover his magic, he will begin to die. So essentially because he has been mortal and is now immortal, he knows that dying is best and is the thing that makes one live. When the Unicorn says she does not understand, Schmendrick tells her that she will and that now she is in the story with the rest of them.

With that they name the Unicorn ‘Lady Almalthea’ and set off to find out how to kill the Bull and save the other unicorns.

Way to step out of a funny, ironic, fairy-tale and lay some heavy ideas on the reader. But Beagle does it marvelously. And he does it throughout the novel, shifting back and forth between humor and thoughtfulness and passion and despair with an ease I can only envy him for. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know what happens, but trust me when I tell you that you are missing some important depth to the story if you never read the book.

The gorgeous writing itself is worth picking it up for.

I suppose what I like best about this book is that it is completely one hundred percent original even though it draws on a number of well-known tales and myths. It’s funny and it has it’s dark moments, too. It’s sad, but it is hopeful. In the end you feel invested in all the characters and curious to know what happens to them.

Aside: Beagle wrote a follow-up novella called Two Hearts that gives you a rather vague and somewhat depressing end to the love story of Lir and Almalthea, but that’s another review.

The Last Unicorn stands by itself when it comes to fantasy works. I can’t think of any book that is like it. I guess that is the reason it’s one of my favorite stories.

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The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Almost as soon as I write this I can hear the theme song from the movie in my head. That cheesy, eighties, swoony tune. The book is NOTHING like the movie, so if you are here looking to read a review of your favorite childhood flick you can forget it. The book was written by Michael Ende, one of the most well-known German children’s authors of the 20th century. Ende wrote the following in 1985, and one can assume he meant his success with Neverending Story and the frustration he must have felt being dismissed as only a ‘children’s author’:

“One may enter the literary parlor via just about any door, be it the prison door, the madhouse door, or the brothel door. There is but one door one may not enter it through, which is the child room door. The critics will never forgive you such. The great Rudyard Kipling is one of a number of people to have suffered from this. I keep wondering to myself what this peculiar contempt towards anything related to childhood is all about.”

I think that the literary world has grown wider, but there are a few ‘old school’ snobs that cling to the idea that writing must be dense and flowery and difficult to interpret in order to have any depth or meaning. While they may be right to a point, they are also short-sighted and so deeply immersed in the world of academia  that they have forgotten that 95% of the world reads Oprah Winfrey’s book club or other general bestseller trash and therefore the layers involved in Ende’s work -as trivially as they were interpreted by Hollywood – are just as difficult for the layman to analyze as it would be for the literary student to dissect anything shelved in the classics section.

For me? Well, I’m really no literary student or snob or otherwise and the message of Ende’s novel touches me deeply. Finding out who you are by stumbling onto a path that changes your life, struggling with self-interest and pride, making horrible mistakes, losing friends, losing everything, being loved unconditionally, facing the weakness of your true self, delving down into the dark places of life to discover what really matters to you, only to lose it in order to find the pathway to redemption, and finally, bringing back what Ende called ‘the Water of Life’ to share with the people closest to you that need it the most.

The message is beautiful; even somewhat biblical. It’s simplicity appeals to me in the light of mythology and Campbell’s Hero Journey as well as my own stumbling pathway through life.

From reading a stolen book in an attic to becoming the hero of his own story, Bastian makes the leap into Fantastica and is given Auryn to do what he wants with. Everything he wishes comes true. He wishes to be clever, handsome, admired and loved. His wishes range from the selfish to the good-intentioned ones he makes for others, with some of his wishes ending badly, and some happily. Ende is making a point here. He is saying that everything we do results in some destiny, whether its ours or someone elses, and that destiny can turn out mediocre, wonderful, boring, or tragic. It has little to do with our wants and desires, but our actions do matter, whether they matter a little or a lot.

Eventually Bastian figures out that for all his wishing; he really doesn’t know what he wants. Auryn ends up costing him his two true friends. Filled with remorse he wanders off to figure out who he really is and what he really might be looking for. And here comes my favorite part.

Bastian has forgotten everything about his former life; every wish he made chipped away a piece of his memory. He only has one memory left: his name. He meets with an old miner man and is told that in order to find his way back to his world he must go down into the mines every day, working in complete silence to find a picture that will show him the way back to his world. But he must give up his last memory to find it. So he does. The Boy Without A Name crawls on his belly through two foot wide tunnels and digs silently for the picture that he will recognize. It takes him months of silence and hard work. The whole scene reminds me of a monastery; the silence, the contemplation, the delving deep into what is metaphorically one’s inner self.

When he finally does find that picture he takes it carefully up to the surface and lays it in the snow. If you speak too loudly the picture will crumble, so Bastian has to be insanely careful with it. Off he goes to find his way home. On his way he comes across these creatures who he changed from sad to happy. They cavort around him and beg him to change them back. He desperately tells them to be quiet, but its no use.  They laugh and scream and the picture breaks.

Think about it. To find what you most love and need in life and then lose it. The one thing that will save you and its all your own stupid fault that you lose it.

This is where the redemption comes in – when all hope is gone.

If life were like a story, but it isn’t – and our lives run jaggedly and unevenly along and don’t have that marvelous climax and conclusion we all seek. But if I had to close my eyes and point, I would say that I am about where Bastian is in my life. Crouched in the snow with the broken fragments of the thing I wanted most and no hope in sight. Unfortunately, we all suffer through these experiences in a spiral, sometimes winding up and sometimes down with redemption usually kicking you back to the beginning to start over and get it right this time.

But perhaps that is the point of Michael Ende’s title. Our lives are a Neverending Story. No real beginnings or endings, always including those who follow after us and those who came before.

I realize this is a personal interpretation of the novel, but I feel a personal kinship with the characters. Their struggles become mine as I read. The humanity that Ende has graced with them with puts him among the circle of master storytellers, despite the critic’s feeling.

Someday I’d like to see a critic write a novel as good as the ones they trash.


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Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Some very adult themes here – namely death – which is perhaps why this book didn’t appeal to me when I was ten. Not only is this a coming of age book, but it is a grappling-with-thy-mid-life-crisis book as well.

When do we face our own mortality? What happens when we do realize that life is going to stop for every single one of us someday? Not just know it, but know it in your soul. Death lies in wait. Hopefully when he comes it will be when you are ready to meet him and not before, but there is no assurance of that.

Tuck Everlasting makes a point of illustrating the Wheel of Life, the natural way of birth and living and dying.

Some of my earliest memories are death-related. A friend of my parent’s – his death by drowning and his funeral; the grief of his wife. My grandfather’s funeral with the open casket. “He just looks like he’s asleep,” my father assured me. Even then I knew that what I was about to see was supposed to be something we draw away from.

But death is natural, and living forever isn’t. This is heavy stuff for a children’s book. Natalie Babbitt has written a complex story that is deceptively simple. I love the richness of her description and her flawless portrayal of a child confronted for the first time by the mystery of life and death. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? You can’t have one without the other Tuck says, but that is just what the Tuck’s have: Life. Forever. No death. How exhausting would it be to live forever? How futile would everything seem with no limits, no end, no constraints? How meaningless everything must become.

The sadness of their fate pulls at my heart even though I know that this story could never actually happen. I suppose it is because I know that there are many, many different ways to avoid living your life – I have tried a few of them without any success, thank god.

Dying is at the end of everything, but the end is not anything I’m worried about. I made my peace with death years ago.

I suppose, when my time comes I feel something like Henry Ward Beecher when he famously said on his deathbed in 1887: “Now comes the mystery.” It’s true. No one knows what lies ahead of us, but we know where we are now.

This book contains that message. Live presently. Live in the now.

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Half Magic by Edward Eager

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time picking things up I found on the ground. Coins, bent nails, stones, seashells, sticks, weird pieces of metal and discarded tin cans. Stuff like that. Many child development psychologists will lead you to believe that children are marvelous at noticing the ordinary since they haven’t yet become jaded adults with more important things to think about and that their minds are more open to the wonders of the world… and all that blah blah blah.

But my own personal theory is that when you are a child you are simply shorter…and therefore lower to the ground, hence you naturally notice a lot more of what goes on down there than the adults, who are taller and busy looking out for buses and talking to each other about boring things, leaving you free to entertain yourself with sticks and stones and notice things nearer to your line of vision.

I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.

What I never told the adults in my life was that the feathers and rocks and tabs from soda cans I was busy collecting served the unique purpose of being carried home in my pocket and then wished on when no one was looking. I can’t remember what I wished for. A unicorn maybe. Or that the next time we went fishing we’d see mermaids. Or that I’d find a hollowed out tree and move into it, like that boy in that one book; he had a raccoon for a pet. Maybe I wished for a raccoon.

Edgar Eager must have remembered about being shorter and finding things on the ground you hoped were wishable, because the first book he wrote was about just that. The children find a magic coin and it gives them wishes. Of course, it only has so many wishes, and it has the trick of making you wish for things twice over in order to get them once – hence the name Half-Magic –  but once the children figure that out they have a terrific time and lots of adventures. They travel to Saudi Arabia and join a caravan and they go back to King Arthur’s court and hang out with Merlin. Through a series of mishaps they start a fire, Jane becomes someone else for the day, and Martha wishes herself half-there and people think she’s a ghost, which starts a riot. In the end they land themselves a nice stepfather who owns a bookshop, their mother gets to quit her poorly paid job and stay at home with them, and they get to spend the rest of the summer by the lake, which is kind of all they wanted to begin with.

The next book takes place at the lake and while they are there they have a run in with a turtle, who gives them a whole lakeful of magic.

All these books Eager wrote were based loosely on his experience of reading his favorite children’s author E. Nesbit. (She’s terrific, too...Five Children and It) He said that he, just like Nesbit, wanted to write stories about ordinary kids who get side-swiped by magic occurrences. So he did. When he ran out of stories about Mark, Katharine, Jane and Martha, he jumped into the future and wrote about their children having magic adventures.

I’ve sort of giving up excerpting since I didn’t want to have copyright issues with anything, but Eager’s books are pretty old, so I feel comfortable sharing this bit. I have to share it. It’s both funny and charming.

Excerpt:

Katharine was the middle girl, of docile disposition and a comfort to her mother. She knew she was a comfort, and docile, because she’d heard her mother say so. and the others knew she was, too, by now, because ever since that day Katharine would keep boasting about what a comfort she was, and how docile, until Jane declared she would utter a piercing shriek and fall over dead if she heard another word about it. This will give you some idea of what Jane and Katharine were like.

…A woman named Miss Bick came every day to care for the children, but she couldn’t seem to care for them very much, nor they for her. And she wouldn’t take them to the country or a lake; she said it was too much to expect and the sound of waves affected her heart.

“Clear Lake isn’t the ocean; you can hardly hear it,” Jane told her.

“It would attract lightning,” Miss Bick said, which Jane thought cowardly, besides being unfair arguing. If you’re going to argue, and Jane usually was, you want people to line up all their objections at a time; then you can knock them down all at once. But Miss Bick was always sly.

So there you have a sample of Eager’s awesome humor. Reflecting: I think that he is a big influence on the way I write. When I read his stuff, I notice that my fiction scribbling has the same tone as his. It’s not deliberate, but there it is. Writers. We all plagiarise each other, but what can you do? While it is about finding your own voice, sometimes your voice is just heavily influenced by those who have gone before.

I still pick stuff up. Being taller now, I don’t notice as much near cracks in the sidewalk and on the side of the road. But I still notice lots of things. Sometimes I go through my storage boxes and I find old keys, old coins, tiny, empty bottles of perfume, odd pendants – the best ones have weird symbols on them – broken pieces of ceramic, plastic figurines, bottle openers and all kinds of odds and ends I’ve picked up. Most of it I throw away in a fit of cleanliness and adult reason, but sometimes – especially when its an old coin from some far off place – I look around to make sure I’m alone – and I wish.

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