Welsh Folk Lore and the Joys of a Good Old Tome

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“he saw before him a nude being with eyes burning like fire, and these glittering balls were directed towards him. The awful being was only a dozen yards or so off. And now it crouched, and now it stood erect, but it never for a single instant withdrew its terrible eyes from the miserable man in the tree.”

I love a good old folklore tome.

Not just the “collected fairy tales.” Those tend to have been scoured from books like Elias Owen’s “Welsh Folk Lore,” but with the names added in to make it more relatable. I like the books with endless “a man said…” “a woman did…” Elias Own is not afraid to tell three or four variants of one tale, but stops before it gets too dull. He doesn’t overly disparage anyone, and he is obsessed with the minutiae, the little details and superstitions. The hills of Wales come alive with fairies and spirits and superstitions in the pages of this book.

“Of a winter’s evening, by the faint light of a peat fire and rush candles, our forefathers recounted the weird stories of olden times, of devils, fairies, ghosts, witches, apparitions, giants, hidden treasures, and other cognate subjects, and they delighted in implanting terrors in the minds of the listeners that no philosophy, nor religion of after years, could entirely eradicate.

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The Joy of the Truly Original

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There’s nothing I love better than being baffled and vaguely annoyed.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, a movie, or a tv show–I love the feeling. Because it means I genuinly don’t know what’s going to happen next.

I expect many voracious readers have this problem. It’s not about being smart or quick–it’s just a result of consuming too many stories. After a while, you know how they’re going to go. You can spot a love interest a mile off, you can catch a murderer in the first act (not because of clues, but because of the structure of the narrative).

But when you don’t know, when you really don’t know what’s going to happen–that’s priceless. That’s what these books did to me.

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Jonathan Stroud, Ursula K Leguin, and Gandalf

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Ursula K Leguin says in an afterword to “A Wizard of Earthsea” that her starting point was to wonder what wizards like Gandalf–or Merlin, or Dumbledore though he came later–were like as young men. Brimming with power, destined for greatness. What would that do to them?

Well, they’d be proud for one. Unable to handle those who cannot recognize their genius. Incapable of explaining why they wanted power, simply seeking it without thought to consequence or need. And, at the last, learning to recognize what is truly important in life. Noticing the little things–happiness, death, love.

Ursula LeGuin was the first to tell that story, but not the last. JK Rowling delved into it in her final Harry Potter book. But perhaps the person who told that story best was Jonathan Stroud–who not only told it, but did not flinch away from the truth of his characters, his story, and the inevitable conclusion.

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The Bartimaeus Trilogy and the Perfect Storm

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Setting, characters, and plot. The three are a delicate mix–give too much weight to one, and the whole thing topples over.

That’s why the Bartimaeus books are so incredibly good. They have all three in perfect measure. The setting is genius, gorgeous and stunningly original. The characters are not so original–but their journey through the world is, and their arcs are painfully perfect. And meanwhile, the plot progresses, driving the rest along.

It all works, and it is awesome.

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Are His Dark Materials Anti-religious?

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In a word, no.

They’re certainly enough for Pullman to have been burned at the stake a few centuries back, but once you dig past the surface they’re not actually anti-religious. If you want to stay on the surface, like many aggressively atheistic teens (we all were one or knew one) that’s fine, great for you.

But the books really are more against religious delusion than against religion. Extreme religiosity is the villain, and false religions. God is an old man who disintegrates on the wind–but he’s not really God, even in the books, is he? He’s just a puppet, or a claimant to a title that was allowed to pass into his hand.

I’ll say this: the books are definitely anti-original sin. The victory of the books is to replay original sin, to reawaken knowledge. But, of course, if God knows all then he would have known that Adam and Eve would stray. So it must have been in the plan. And, after all, it is an Angel who protects Will and Lyra long enough for them to become Adam and Eve.

On Lyra Silvertongue

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This girl is amazing.

She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s wild and glorious. She’s a delight to read about. Her reaction is never predictable, but it is always entertaining.

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For the first two books.

Then she gets boring. I remember reading the Pullman books 3 times before, and each time coming away feeling slightly bored. The brilliance of the novels is inarguable, and the characters are amazing. But, particularly in the third novel, the story starts to get wrapped up in Will–and Will just isn’t that entertaining. He doesn’t come across as vividly as the other characters. He doesn’t have the same drive, the same fire that animates everyone else. As Will becomes a more and more important character, Lyra seems to fade. By the end of the novel, she’s a pretty uninteresting adolescent.

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And Pullman didn’t earn the romance between Lyra and Will. He just didn’t–they bond enough for a decent friendship, but not for an epic Adam-and-Eve world-altering love affair.

Everything else about these books is so good. Will and the Lyra of the end of the books just don’t feel worthy of the brilliant little girl who started us on the road.

The Big Necessity and Why Are We Doing It Wrong?

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Sanitation–disposing of what our bodies dispose of–is essential to a civilized society. Or any society that doesn’t want to drown in its own filth. So why haven’t we figured out how to solve it yet?

That’s the overwhelming question that “The Big Necessity” left me with: why haven’t we gotten our shit together and taken care of our shit? Like, as a species? New York City and London are cities where sanitation workers are in actual physical danger. Most cities take their raw sewage and pump it into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, where whatever it’s doing cannot be good. In countries that aren’t as squeamish about their poop, it’s used as fertilizer and biogas. But it’s still full of diseases.

One of the most interesting things I learned was that our own poop actually isn’t that dangerous to us, personally. That’s why all American cell phones can have traces of our fecal matter on them without everyone dying of cholera. The problem is other people’s poop. Unhealthy people’s poop. And we still can’t figure out how to keep other people’s poop out of our food or off our fields.

Most people in the world don’t want to think about this. They don’t want to deal with sanitation, with the embarrassment associated with toilet duties. And, interestingly, I’m not talking about first world problems–even people whose idea of a toilet is a pair of bricks to elevate them over the shit-covered ground are rarely interested in talking about sanitation, much less doing anything. Across the world, latrines are built by aid organizations only to be completely ignored by local poor villagers, or used as storage space (when the latrine’s nicer than your house, why the hell would you waste it by shitting in it?). People are pretty much the same everywhere: they shit, and then they don’t want to think about shitting anymore.

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