King Arthur, Tolkien, Bells, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Pillars of Hercules

We spent our Saturday morning at a different  library (the central library for Kern County), and I had the feeling I often do when visiting a new library: that I would like to move in and live there forever, take possession of the whole, as it were, like a dragon reclining on his hoard of gold. As Patricia McKillip puts it in her latest novel of my acquaintance,

“The odd thing about people who had many books was how they always wanted more. Judd knew that about himself: just the sight of Ridley Dow’s books unpacked and stacked in corners, on the desk and dresser, made him discontent and greedy. Here he was; there they were. Why were he and they not together somewhere private, they falling gently open under his fingers, he exploring their mysteries, they luring him, enthralling him, captivating him with every turn of phrase, every revealing page?”

I’m hopelessly behind on the book reviews, and may have inadvertently left some out, but here’s my recent reading:

Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before & After JesusDesire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before & After Jesus by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Book 3 of Cahill’s Hinges of Civilization series, and I loved it as much as I loved the original two (How the Irish Saved Civilization, and The Gifts of the Jews). It paints an intimate picture of the historical Christ and his close friends, followers, and contemporaries. Cahill has a real gift for bringing ancient history to life. I was especially intrigued by his portrait of Paul. In case you didn’t know, the Biblical writer to whom is attributed the injunction that women keep their mouths shut in church, was actually a fairly radical feminist for his time. Also included was some interesting commentary on how artifacts and portraits from the Shroud of Turin to Renaissance paintings probably do in fact resemble Jesus Christ.

The Bell at Sealey HeadThe Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can never resist Patricia McKillip. Even when her plots are a little sparse, or her characters a bit undeveloped (as both are in this book), there is nothing like her lyrical prose for sheer aesthetic pleasure. Hers is a world in which even cooking is poetic, and seemingly prosaic tasks like translating an arcane text or writing a dissertation become transcendently magical. You really absolutely must read at least one of her books, but this should not be your first. Try Song for the Basilisk, Ombria in Shadow, or my perennial favorite, Winter Rose.

The Bell TreeThe Bell Tree by Helen Mary Hoover

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one was just O.K. It’s a pretty typical example of the soft sci fi for young readers that proliferated during the 1980’s. The themes are anthropological and environmental. The book reads as a way-too-long short story. There’s no real character or plot development. Some stuff just happens, and then it ends.

The Pillars of HerculesThe Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I picked this book up in a fit of nostalgia. I’ve visited or lived in quite a few of the places Theroux hits during his grand tour of the Mediterranean, and I was feeling homesick. Unfortunately, he is such a priggish and self-centered writer I couldn’t even make it all the way through the book. Most of his commentary was complaints, either about natives of the various countries he visited, or about fellow travelers (only he won’t dignify anyone but himself with the title of “traveler.” Everyone else he meets he dismisses as “tourists”). I can see why he traveled alone. I can’t imagine anyone freely choosing him as a traveling companion. Anyone read a good travel book about the entire Mediterranean lately?

The Once and Future KingThe Once and Future King by T.H. White

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book–tender, funny, heartbreaking, and wonderfully wise. White’s development of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, and all the rest of Malory’s characters is fresh and believable. And his passionate treatment of the themes of power, justice, war, and individual moral responsibility really impressed me. This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, partially because it is on the reading list for the homeschooling curriculum I use. It far surpassed my (rather high) expectations. I really cannot think of a better novel for teaching about government and the proper use and limitation of power (which is not at all to say that I view it primarily as a textbook. It is a novel of extraordinary pathos and depth, and a delightful read). As is immediately evident upon reading it, both Disney’s The Sword and the Stone and Lerner and Lowe’s musical Camelot are based on this version of the Arthur legends. All of the charm and beauty of the two adaptations are contained in The Once and Future King, but it gloriously surpasses them both.

The Dead Sea ScrollsThe Dead Sea Scrolls by Ilene Cooper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked this one out for my kids, then realized that it’s not really geared toward their age level. So I read it myself. I’d heard enough tidbits to be curious about the academic saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This little book explains it all in a fairly engaging style, and with minimal talking-down. I read it and then told my kids the story.

The Children of HurinThe Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Admittedly, this book is probably only of interest to people who are way too obsessed with Tolkien. It’s another in a series of Tolkien’s unfinished manuscripts, edited by his son Christopher. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, after his death, Tolkien’s unfinished writings did turn out to resemble a collection of stories handed down from a far distant, mythic past. There are multiple versions of each legend, longer and shorter tellings, contradictory details, changed names, alternate endings. It’s all on a much grander, more epic scale than Lord of the Rings. These characters are larger than life. Rather than human weaknesses, they have tragic flaws. It’s sort of like a cross between Greek tragedy and Wagner. If you liked The Silmarillion, you will love this longer retelling of the story of Turin Turambar.

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One thought on “King Arthur, Tolkien, Bells, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Pillars of Hercules

  • December 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    I had to check because I just read a travel (of sorts) book by a Theroux…only this was Peter, not Paul. *whew*

    I read the first one on your list, but had forgotten what I liked about it until you reminded me in your review. Thanks!


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