Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Special Report - Boys' Adventures and a Second Christmas
I dedicate this essay to the memory of a truly great writer and adventurer, Bertrand R. Brinley.

In gratitude,
--Dr. Thursday
While I ought to continue the prolongation of Christmas by a special commentary on the upcoming (new-style) Baptism of the Lord, which is concurrently celebrated with the old-style Holy Family (First Sunday after Epiphany), I have had an interesting kind of Second Christmas, which, as you may see, might even play into the present liturgical scheme.

Just before the end of the year, I had to investigate something-or-other, and as all Chestertonians know about encyclopedias (TCM 240), one thing led to another. (Hmm, I think there is a rock song called that.) Yes, for me, it is as Bunny Watson (Katherine Hepburn) remarked to Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracey) in "Desk Set": "I associate many things with many things."

Ahem. This was somehow motivated by the discussion over in our bloggmistress's own blogg about children's literature, or (as GKC calls it) "Books for Boys". GKC's essay in The Common Man is very important to our topic - here is just a short excerpt:
The mental digestion of boys is as strong as their physical digestion. They do not heed the cookery of art any more than the art of cookery. They can eat the apples of the tree of knowledge, and they can eat them raw. It is a great mistake to suppose that boys only read boyish books. Not only do they privately revel in their sisters' most sentimental novels, but they absorb cartloads of useless information. One boy in particular, with whose career from an early age we have the best reasons for being familiar, used to read whole volumes of Chamber's Encyclopaedia, and of a very musty and unreliable History of English Trade. The thing was a mere brute pleasure of reading, a pleasure in leisurely and mechanical receptiveness. It was the sort of pleasure that a cow must have in grazing all day long. But when all allowance has been made for the omnivorousness of youth, we incline to think that there is probably a considerable amount of truth in the idea that boys' books have to some extent degenerated. They have degenerated probably for the reason that all forms of art degenerate, because they are despised. Probably they were less despised in the days when they still had upon them, as it were, the glamour of the great masters of historical romance. The spirit of Scott and Ainsworth and Fenimore Cooper remained in them even if it was only the reflection of a hundred reflections and each in a distorting mirror. No one will ever understand the spirit at the back of popular and juvenile literature until he realises one fact, that a large amount of it is the result of that enthusiasm of the young reader which makes him wish to hear more and more about certain heroes, and read more and more of certain types of books. He dowers the creatures of fiction with a kind of boyish immortality. He is not surprised if Dick Deadshot or Jack Harkaway renews his youth through a series of volumes which reaches further than the length of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These books have the vital philosophy of youth, a philosophy in which death does not exist, except, indeed, as an external and picturesque incident which happens to villains.
[GKC, The Common Man 228-9]
Clearly, GKC liked and appreciated Books for Boys. In his other foundation-essay of this topic, he illuminates us further: "The essence of adventure stories, as Stevenson pointed out, is that the reader is himself the adventurer. He imagines himself sharing the combat and the comradeship..." [GKC, ILN Sept 23, 1922 CW32:450] These two elements, the seeming perpetual life, and the reader's sharing in the participation, stand at the foundation to this matter, and deserve some deep study - which I hope to return to. But for today I wish to go into another aspect of "Boy's Adventures".

Read more.

I claim that anyone - boy or girl - and this means readers of any age - can, should, and will delight in such stories. Rather than a sign of some distorted refusal to grow up, delight in "Boys' Stories" is far more a definite indication of authentic maturity. (Remember, "unless you change, and become LIKE little children..." - we can delve into THAT also another day!) Such books, when they are good, provoke a sharp, insistent interest. They motivate far better than those smarmy "Power" management posters one sees hung up in company lunchrooms. They display exemplars of honesty, confidence, chivalry, steadfastness, friendship - all the manly, Christian virtues - remember virtue derives from Latin vir = Man-the-male! Even a boy can "Be a man." (It is part of the paradox that a woman can be so without losing any of her innate femininity.) They hold up a mirror far more magical than Harry Potter's "Erised" or than that of the witch in Snow White - for this mirror shows a stark image of the Good Man, the Trusted Friend, the Honest Worker - all the virtuous and veiled heroes of the Heavenly Hall - and commands us to compare ourselves to them: how do we rank? It is a grave danger - but ought not be avoided, since its comparison is the safest path to improvement. (This "mirror" is nothing more than an examination of conscience in story-form.)

Not that such books are handbooks of Moral Theology! They are fiction, not scholarly texts. But then so are the parables of our Lord! Often there are unpunished crimes (the thieves in the Good Samaritan) unresolved threads (what the older brother of the Prodigal Son does) or other distasteful characters (the bad judge pestered by the widow)... But I am not here to argue the goodness of "Story" - whether given from divine or from human pens. I am simply trying to call attention to such things.

Nor ought the apparent bias of Boys (as distinct from Girls) be of concern. This is not that kind of matter. That particular subject which GKC considered one of the Great Secrets of All Humanity, because we ALL know about it, and yet do not ordinarily talk about its details in public (see ILN August 10, 1907 CW27:523 et seq for the whole discussion) is, by definition, out of bounds for such stories, except in the most distant, and always the most chivalrous, manner. Again, in our present day, there is far too much of this secret not being properly kept - and I need not mention it further. Which is one reason why such Literature is so good.

Another reason is the rightful placing of the "hard" matter of science and morality (yes, as Dorothy Sayers noted, there ARE six other deadly sins besides the one that has "adult" in its name!) Here's how GKC explains it: was a mark of the old English school of boys' literature that the authors were full of scientific hobbies. Where they differed from the scientific futurists of to-day is that they never were tormented with the sceptical fancy that material changes must be accompanied by moral changes. The morality they expressed - or rather, assumed - was the sane and simple morality which is the soul of all adventures. Adventure involves loyalty because it involves purpose; it involves courage because it involves peril; it involves a certain receptiveness and readiness to be easily pleased because it involves making the best of anything. The modern story-teller is disturbed with a vague evolutionary notion that this morality can change. We can only say that, if it does change, there will be no adventure stories, and probably no adventures. Thus a real adventure story cannot be made on a certain moral or immoral model not uncommon in modern books. I mean the sort of story in which the hero is the villain. The hero need not be directly dealing in morality, but his own moral position must be by implication secure and satisfying; for it is the whole meaning of adventure that his soul is the fixed point in a wildly agitated world.
[GKC, ILN Sept 23, 1922 CW32:453]
Wow. But I seem to be drifting into a discussion of such Stories in general, and today I want to talk about some very specific stories. Specifically, the short stories by Bertrand R. Brinley, written in the early 1960s and first appearing in Boys' Life, about the Mad Scientists of Mammoth Falls.

These stories have been among my very favourites for decades. They were an important milestone along my path into science. Not that I haunted a house, or built a flying saucer, or dug up a dinosaur egg! But because they joined, in a very Chestertonian way, two ideas which would otherwise be seen as quite disjoint: the idea of science, and the idea of humor - or, even more general, the idea of having a Good Time with science. At first, you would expect that Chesterton, having died in 1936, could by no means have written anything at all on a story which first appeared in 1964 or so. But then, knowing our Mr. Chesterton as you should by now, you ought to expect that he did just about everything but name the book and its main characters. And behold: you would be right!
Some solemn and superficial people (for nearly all very superficial people are solemn) have declared that the fairy-tales are immoral; they base this upon some accidental circumstances or regrettable incidents in the war between giants and boys, some cases in which the latter indulged in unsympathetic deceptions or even in practical jokes. The objection, however, is not only false, but very much the reverse of the facts. The fairy-tales are at root not only moral in the sense of being innocent, but moral in the sense of being didactic, moral in the sense of being moralising. It is all very well to talk of the freedom of fairyland, but there was precious little freedom in fairyland by the best official accounts.
[GKC ILN Feb 29, 1908 CW28:53]
For, I regret to inform my friends who live in the Midwest area near the southwest end of Lake Michigan, Mammoth Falls is NOT in Illinois, or Wisconsin. it is in Fairy Land, and the boys battle the usual giants, sometimes with unsympathetic deceptions, and sometimes with practical jokes. But the point, as GKC lectures at length in his Orthodoxy, is that the Science (often termed "magic") of that land provides very little freedom. Perhaps this is why these scientists are "mad"...

It would be all too easy to construct parallels between the Seven Mad Scientists and their once-friend and arch foe, and GKC's Seven Members of the Council of the Days, and their opponent... but that is not the point here. Let the bible scholars sort this, as Ronald Knox sorted Holmes and the mystery of the variant Watsons. No, I am not trying that kind of literary exploration. It would be all too easy to critique the "science", the practicality, or the legality, of the antics of these young men. But that would be like trying to bring the Prodigal Son to the Sanhedrin for judgement... a silly and useless exercise, even for the moot of it. It would be all too easy to condemn, with all the fires of dragons, the explanations of how certain - er - technical tricks can be done - but any typical television show or movie provides far easier, and far more dangerous temptations.

No, I come not to critique, but to announce. I come with news of great joy. I am quite late at this, since it was old news even some years ago, but in this case, it is better late than never.

For me, 2007 was not only the year in which I read the final Harry Potter mystery, and learned the revelations akin to those of the Road to Emmaus (which I understand is JKR's favourite painting). It was also the year I learned that there were MORE stories about the Mad Scientists - more than the two books of short stories which I read long ago and keep happily on my Important Books shelf.

I said something about a second Christmas - it came last week, when I obtained the TWO OTHER BOOKS about the Mad Scientists - and they are full-length novels! The first is called The Big Kerplop! (referring to something which falls into Strawberry Lake from an Air Force jet). It is important because it gives the foundation of the Club, and many important details about the members, including the "casting out" of the enemy. The second is called The Big Chunk of Ice, and it has such a feel of Manalive and other Chesterton stories, it is hilarious as well as different - I can't easily give a good summary, nor do I want to, as that might spoil it.

Note - I am not connected with Purple House Press, the Brinleys, or anything related to these books - except as a reader and as one who delights in a friendship with the seven Mad Scientists. I would strongly urge you, whether you are a boy, have a boy brother, son, grandson, nephew, or neighbour, or have been a boy, or have known a boy - get these books, and read them. You do NOT have to be a scientist to like them, as you do not have to be a priest to like Father Brown, or a English journalist to like Chesterton. I think you will enjoy them - I hope you do. I did, and still do.

I said at the beginning of this ridiculously incoherent ramble that this topic of boy's books is connected to the liturgical epoch we are in. Well, that's a real stretch - or maybe it isn't. It sometimes seems quite misleading, as some may guess that Christ was baptised as an infant - but really! He was "about 30" at that time, and except for the glimpse at the Finding in the Temple, there is a good 18, if not 28 to 30 years about which we know nothing - or next to nothing. Hear again GKC on this, from his master reference to our Lord:
There are a great many things about it [the Gospel] which nobody would have invented, for they are things that nobody has ever made any particular use of; things which if they were remarked at all have remained rather as puzzles. For instance, there is that long stretch of silence in the life of Christ up to the age of thirty. It is of all silences the most immense and imaginatively impressive. But it is not the sort of thing that anybody is particularly likely to invent in order to prove something; and nobody so far as I know has ever tried to prove anything in particular from it. It is impressive, but it is only impressive as a fact; there is nothing particularly popular or obvious about it as a fable. The ordinary trend of hero-worship and myth-making is much more likely to say the precise opposite.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:321]
It may be, as I have pointed out somewhere, that this was because He wished to be "full-grown" since the epiphyses of the clavicle do not fuse until then - the collarbone is the last of the long bones to "finish" being put together. Or it may be, as GKC continues in the above-quoted text, that "there is indeed something strange in the thought that the who of all humanity needed least preparation seems to have had most. Whether it was some mode of the divine humility, or some truth of which we see the shadow in the longer domestic tutelage of the higher creatures of the earth, I do not propose to speculate; I mention it simply as an example of the sort of thing that does in any case give rise to speculations, quite apart from recognised religious speculations." [Ibid CW2:321-2]

But the reason could be simpler. What was He doing? Well! As an embryo, a fetus, an infant, a toddler, a lad, He grew - and He learned. He was busy. And after he grew and learned, He was working - as we all do. He was with His family, doing the family things. And in the end, He like the Mad Scientists, went and "battled giants", sometimes with "unsympathetic deceptions" and sometimes with what were nearly "practical jokes". Yes, there are still giants to fight. Sometimes, laughter is the best weapon: "The child or the boy is quite right in believing that there really is a dragon somewhere, and that the harder he is hit the better." [GKC ILN Sept 23 1922 CW32:454]

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