The Once and Future King

Today I am recommending The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This book is actually a collection of four books. The first being The Sword in the Stone which was turned into and animated film by Walt Disney in 1963. This first book was originally published in 1938 (Beyond the first book, I’d say this novel is not particularly for kids as war and fighting and sex and death are, for the most part, shielded from the eyes of children). The collection of all four into The Once and Future King was published in 1958.

This recommendation does come with a few reservations. I enjoyed the lengthy novel (roughly 650 pages and nearing 300,000 words) which is centered around the Arthurian tales, but I’m afraid I may have come to it with a slight case of expectations. I know, I know, it is best to remove all expectations prior to experiencing a story so as to allow yourself to form your own opinion of it. I was planning on doing just that but seemed to have caught the little bug, which flew to me upon the words of Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman as well as others who provided blurbs or introductions to this book. People whose opinions hold weight with me.

I understand their love for the book. The wit-filled pages that recount Arthur’s education and inauguration as king to his formation of the round table and the era of chivalry and through the years beyond where if falls into ruin. The story is interesting and entertaining. Some areas drag while others are captivating. It stays true to what is known about the legends (which most of us know of but may have never really read about) and White often refers to Mallory or other sources of the Arthurian legend. I felt that White relied on the reader having previous knowledge of the legend during certain passages.

The more I think about the story the more I like it, but I was not enthralled while actively reading it. White was funny and whimsical while also covering the darker story-lines and allowing tragedy. There are no detailed descriptions of fights or battles or hardships. Many are written without providing action but do provide some detail about the aftermath. The result is no blood and gore (which is perfectly acceptable and not really essential to the story) but plenty of description about scenery and the lands of England. The story of Arthur and his knights has captivated the world for centuries. I believe his story and legend will survive for a long time and White’s telling of it will continue to entertain. After all, it is written for modern audiences and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The greatest thing about this book is its arching storyline of how England, through Arthur, was shifted from the “Might is Right” society to a more civilized land of laws. The tragedy of Arthur is in his good deeds. He transforms England into a peaceful land by channeling baser human instincts into a morally superior lifestyle. The new lifestyle is what ultimately causes the personal turmoil of the aged Arthur because he ties his own hands against saving the ones he loves.

If you are interested in, or already love, the Arthurian tales, then this book will likely be of great interest to you. If you know a little but would like to know more about these tales, then this book is a great place to start.

Happy Reading.

Book Recommendation – Good Omens

Today I am recommending Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett. The story (subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) follows approximately three main characters: the angel Aziraphale, the demon Crowley, and the Anti-Christ aptly named Adam. Crowley has been tasked with ensuring the Anti-Christ is raised to accomplish what he was born to do. However, Crowley has grown quite fond of Earth and humans and decidedly isn’t 100% behind Armageddon. Neither is Aziraphale, who has also grown quite fond of Earth and humans as well. Crowley and Aziraphale have both been on Earth since its beginning and long ago came to an agreement not to prevent the other from doing their jobs. An agreement that would make them something close to friends. The result is a delightfully humorous book about the end of the world.

This book is technically the first book of fiction I’ve read by Terry Pratchett (I’ve read many of Neil Gaiman’s books). I have yet to read any of his Discworld books and have only read one collection of non-fiction that came out shortly after he passed away, but I’ve always known Terry as a fantasy-comedy writer and he does not disappoint in this collaboration.

I was recently lucky enough to see Neil Gaiman in person where he read an excerpt of this book and talked about how it was written and the agreements he made with Terry regarding the adaptation of the book into film. You can tell that Neil misses him terribly as any good friend would miss another good friend. The book came out in 1990 and has been adapted into a television series scheduled to premiere later this year, so I’m sure you will be seeing more about it in the future.

The characters of Crowley and Aziraphale were incredibly fun and, though fundamentally at opposition, they make the business of influencing humans toward good and evil extremely entertaining. They have fun and you can’t help but have fun too. Yes, there is some absurd moments, but you must have a little absurdity to have a comical Armageddon. After all, they are discussing the ineffable.

Though I am not a religious man, I am curious about the “powers that be” in the bible and the supernatural elements of the stories it contains. If you like to laugh and aren’t put off by two English guys telling a witty, rapturous story that borders on blasphemy, then you will absolutely enjoy this book. I know I did.

Happy Reading.


 

Update: I’ve watched the television adaptation of this book and it was incredible. Neil Gaiman wrote the script and therefore it stayed extremely close the source material while making necessary changes for the new medium. Many changes I thought were improvements. With a stellar cast and great production, the show is a joy to watch. It is the right amount of quirky and absurd. It was produced by Amazon and was released on Amazon Prime only at the start. It’s a six-part miniseries. I highly recommend it. 

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. My now father-in-law bought this book for me over a year ago and I just got around to reading it last month (that to-be-read pile never decreases). Of course, Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis is best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia series. I haven’t read that series, and now that I think about it, this might be the first of Lewis’s books that I have read.

This book reads as a collection of letters sent by Screwtape, a demon/devil, to his nephew, Wormwood. The letters offer advice on how to effectively tempt a human in such a way that they end up in Hell as sustenance for fellow demons. Though I am not a religious man, I enjoyed this book for several reasons.

The first being the historical context and reassurance that humanity has suffered the same or similar societal issues for at least the past 100 years. This book was published in 1942. Many of the tricks that Screwtape offers his nephew to persuade his patient are also reflections on human nature and its social interactions. I was surprised to find many of the behaviors spot on even for today, nearly eighty years after they were written, in a time drastically different due to technological advancement and the connection of humanity across the world by the ambivalent internet.

I know that C.S. Lewis had a crisis of faith at one time and that J.R.R. Tolkien, along with another friend, helped him during this time. The result ended up with Lewis bolstering his beliefs and going on to write many theologically influenced books, including this one. Lewis even dedicated this book to J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien were best friends as they taught at Oxford and remained friends their entire lives. They often reviewed each other’s works and offered advice. I could go further into their relationship, but I’ll refrain because I’ll end up talking more about Tolkien than Lewis, or this book of his that I’m recommending.

The letters often refer to a war and how it could be used to win the battle for the human soul. This war refers to World War II, but I wouldn’t be surprised if World War I had some influence as well. Apparently there are many ways for us humans to be influenced toward sin and other actions. There is also many ways we can seemingly be redeemed (and fairly easily). This book is considered “Christian apologetic novel” and honestly I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it has many interesting lectures I think anyone can enjoy. Lewis stated that he had a hard time writing this book because Screwtape was such an abhorrent character (being a demon). Luckily for us, he was able to produce this interesting religious and social commentary.

Happy Reading.

Scoreboard

Jennifer remembered when the site was first discovered. No one knew who created it or how it worked. Several top agencies from countries around the world looked for those running the page, but nothing was ever discovered. The site continued as if on its own. No one could access the algorithm it ran or figure out how it gathered the data it used to make its judgments. Many claimed the data was freely available online, but that theory quickly vanished after infants were found on the site before their birth certificates were signed.

It was a ranking system. It had every iota of information about every single person on the planet. You could find your name with a quick search. If your name was Jimmy Smith, you could narrow it down by address, phone number, parents’ names, date of birth, education, job, age, or whatever you can think of. The site had every detail.

Jennifer had been fifteen years old when it consumed the world. It permeated every aspect of life. Social media lost its appeal rather quickly when people realized they could get any information they wanted from the site aptly called http://www.verity.com. The world changed within a few years to what it was now. Jennifer was young enough to adapt quickly to the change but old enough to remember what it was like before.

She was trying to remember what her parents were like before the change when her name was called.

“Jennifer?” an older voice repeated in the waiting room.

Jennifer rose and let the little old woman guide her back to a conference room where two men and a woman, all in suits, sat at a table typing into a tablet. They stopped talking when the old voice announced her.

“Welcome, have a seat,” the woman said. Jennifer promptly obeyed and sat quietly as they finished their notes from the previous interview. Then, without warning, the first question broke the silence.

“Why do you want to work for this company, Ms. Whitley?”

“I believe this company is a place where my talents can excel and mutual growth can be expected.” She’d rehearsed several hundred answers to the basic questions.

The three interviewers never looked up from their screens except for an occasional glance. These happened periodically and only when they were either asking a question or receiving her answer. They never stopped typing. She began to wonder if she was wasting her time, but she answered every question in turn. It wasn’t until the end when they asked the question that was expected but never easy to answer.

“What is your ranking, Jennifer?”

She checked her watch and quickly answered. “Three point five point eight three two eight.” She had the Verity app installed on her phone so it displayed on her smartwatch. Just above the time, her current rank was displayed. Right now she was ranked 3,504,896,328 out of 9,742,531,082. Ranks changed at any time. No one knew why. Even after decades of research there was no apparent reason as to why ranks changed. No one knew what they were being judged for or who was judging. They just knew their rank and desired to climb higher.

“Top 35%. Not bad.” The man in the middle shrugged. He hadn’t bothered to look at her but kept his eyes glued to his tablet as he continued to type.

“Thank you,” was all she could think to answer. She was used to a follow-up such as What have to you done recently to try to increase your rank? or When was the last time your rank fell more than one hundred levels? but just asking for her number was apparently their final question. She thought it strange since she was sure they had her number pulled up on the tablets in front of them.

“You will hear from us soon.”

Jennifer rose and thanked them for the opportunity. She kept an eye on her number as she left the building to see if it would drop. She felt the interview had not gone well and expected a drop in ranking to be proof that she wouldn’t get the job, but her number remained the same as she made her way through the city park toward her apartment.

“You know, it’s not good to be tied that thing twenty-four seven.”

The comment didn’t register until she had almost passed the one who said it. She paused and looked up to see an older man, maybe mid-sixties, sitting on a bench. He was looking at her over the rim of his glasses. He had lowered the book he was reading.

She smiled and slowly placed her phone in her purse. “Thanks for the reminder. It’s just…I just had an interview and was hoping to hear something.”

“How long ago was your interview?”

“About ten minutes ago.”

“You think it went poorly?” He placed a marker in his book and closed it.

“I don’t know. My ranking hasn’t changed.”

“Ah,” the old man smiled. “You think any changes will be the result of how the interview went. That’s a little superstitious don’t you think?”

“Is it?”

“Perhaps not. No one really knows how that thing works, which is why I gave up on it long ago. Expecting a job offer only ten minutes after an interview is a little much though.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, “You stopped looking at your rank?”

“You will never find happiness comparing yourself to others.”

Jennifer glanced at her watch. Not to look at the time, but to check her rank. It was more habit than intention and she caught herself realizing how much her number influenced her decisions and even her daily routines. The old man was smiling at her when she looked back up.

He offered her a seat with an open palm. “Give yourself a break from the numbers. If only for a few minutes.”

She hesitated but accepted and sat down next to him. She glanced at her watch again but quickly covered it with her other hand.

“So you never look at your number?”

“Never,” he said.

“How? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“The curiosity fades the longer you go without. The numbers don’t really matter because they don’t do anything productive. They just allow everyone to believe themselves better or inferior than others. We all formed our own opinions about that before that website came along. The numbers just made it seem like there is validity to our place in the world. We don’t have to make our own judgments anymore. They are made for us and we can just accept our place. A little sad, don’t you think?”

“What’s your name?”

He looked at her over the rim of his glasses again. “So you can look up my number?” He took off his glasses and set them down with his book. She smiled ruefully.

“Tell you what. I’ll give you my name if you promise not to tell me what my number is.”

“Deal.”

“…and you have to go twenty minutes without looking at any screens. You’ll sit here and have a conversation with me.”

“Deal,” she said, amused.

“My name is David Wilburrough. Age sixty-four. I think I’m still the only Wilburrough this old,” he chuckled.

She pulled out her phone, popped open the app, and quickly found one sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. His rank was 533,267. She stared at him wide-eyed. The phone remained in her hand.

“No,” he caught her before she could say anything. “A promise is a promise. Now put that away and tell me about your interview.”

She put her phone away and, to keep her word, put her smartwatch in her purse as well. “You aren’t the least bit curious?”

He smiled. “If I gave into any curiosity now, I’d be caught back up in the game in no time. I’m fine how I am. Now, about that interview.”

“They didn’t seem much interested to be honest.”

“No one seems interested in anything when their eyes are glued to the screens in front of them.”

“How’d you know they were using tablets?”

“I didn’t. I just assumed. It seems everyone uses them nowadays. If I were you, I’d just wait for the decision to be made before torturing yourself with the possibilities of what they think. You can’t read minds, and worry won’t change a thing.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Usually is. I find reading helps.” He lifted the book as he said it. “Helps keep your mind away from the worry without adding to it. Do you read?”

She had to seriously think about the last time she read a book. “I used to,” she finally answered.

“Never too late to pick it back up.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You can begin with this.” He offered her his book.

“I couldn’t.”

“You can. I’ve read it several times already, and I have another copy at home. It’s one of my favorites. Take it. You might find something useful in it.”

She reluctantly took the well-worn book and offered her thanks.

“I know it’s only been about ten minutes, but I actually need to be on my way. My granddaughter’s birthday party is this afternoon and I can’t be late. How about you start that book to keep yourself from checking your phone for the rest of your promised time?”

She smiled. “A promise is a promise. It was nice meeting you Michael.”

“The pleasure was mine…um…” he smiled in a poor attempt to hide his embarrassment.

“Jennifer,” she offered, “Jennifer Whitley.”

He nodded to her and tried again. “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Whitley. Enjoy the book.” With those words he scampered off.

“Have fun at the birthday party,” she called after him.

She was alone again and had to resist from checking her phone. She opened the book and flipped through the pages until she found Chapter 1.

She read for a long time before she was interrupted by a ringing from her purse. She pulled her phone out to see it was her sister calling. Jennifer assumed she would ask about the interview and didn’t want to talk about it just yet, so she silenced the ringer and returned to the book. She found couldn’t focus on the pages anymore and quickly gave up. She put the book in her purse.

She checked her phone again. Her own number hadn’t changed, but she was more curious about the rank of sixty-four-year-old Michael Willburrough. She quickly found him again and noticed his rank had shot up by over two thousand. She wanted to go find him and tell him the good news. Then she remembered he didn’t know his rank and didn’t want to. He would never know that he was in the top one-thousandth percent in the entire world. She was sad for him but also inspired. He lived his life exactly as he wanted to. He probably never believed himself to be better than anyone. Perhaps that was what made him better than everyone.

Jennifer rose from the park bench and started her walk back to her apartment. She called her sister on the way to fill her in on the interview. She never checked her watch as she spoke with her sister. She didn’t check her rank after she got home and made dinner or even afterwards when she started reading instead of watching TV. All the while, her rank slowly increased as time ticked by.

Lemniscate

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

The old woman before him nodded.

“Place your hand here,” he continued. She followed his order and placed her hand on the smooth tablet he held before her. Then he ushered her to the door behind him. The door closed with a thud that echoed through the great room. It was all white. Even the lone table and two chairs. There were no windows or lights. The whiteness of the walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to reflect each other in a way that illuminated every inch of every surface. No shadows existed anywhere.

He sat down to find another dossier had replaced the last. He rested the tablet on the table then picked up the file and flicked through its contents reviewing the information inside. The information that would allow him to pass judgement on his next guest.

When he was satisfied he had seen enough to make an accurate decision, he dropped the dossier onto the table and rose. The human named Francis Nguyen arrived through the door in front of him. A hint of confusion was visible on the small man’s face as he strode across the large room. Each footfall echoed within the chamber and Remiel made an adjustment that softened the noise. Then, as he approached Mr. Nguyen, he reduced his own size to be identical to his guests by shrinking a few inches and thinning himself.

“Mr. Nguyen,” Remiel greeted his guest and showed him to the lone table. Mr. Nguyen bowed graciously before taking his seat. Remiel took his own seat before formally beginning the conversation. Mr. Nguyen had been composed so far, which was an excellent sign.

“Do you know where you are Francis?”

“I do,” Mr. Nguyen said, briefly taking in more of the modest room. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Remiel, though I do not seem to recall the last or first time we met.”

Remiel smiled. “That is to be expected. I am familiar because we have met on multiple occasions.” Remiel himself did not know this until a moment ago when he reviewed the dossier and regained his memories of the previous Francis Nguyen, who had been called Lindsay Williamson. She had been eighty-two years old, whereas Francis was thirty-eight.

“Can you remind me why I am here?” Mr. Nguyen asked.

“Your time has ended, for now, in the land of the living.”

“Ah, I see, and I am here for my final judgement.”

“Not yet, Mr. Nguyen. You have lived just over two hundred years across five lives. You have a few more to experience before the final judgement is given.”

“I will go back then?”

“Not as you are currently.”

Mr. Nguyen’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head ever so slightly.

“What do you remember of your previous lives?” Remiel asked.

“Nothing.”

“That is because you cannot take your memories with you. You must start again. A clean slate. No prior experiences and under new circumstances. You have done this several times already. Only when you have lived your three hundred and thirty-three years will you be ready to receive your final judgment.”

Mr. Nguyen nodded. “Yes, I’m beginning to remember, but please forgive me. Why so many years?”

“One life is too short to accurately pass judgement on a soul. Multiple lives are required to collect the necessary information to make a proper assessment.”

“Then I have no choice but to accept?”

“There is always a choice.” Remiel picked up the tablet and rose from his chair. Mr. Nguyen stood as well. They walked a few paces before Remiel turned to face Mr. Nguyen and present the tablet.

“When you place your hand on this, it will absorb all of your memories. Then you will pass through the door behind me to begin your next life. The choice you have in this moment is where you will be born and how long your life will last. You cannot choose who your parents will be or how you will be born or any aspect of how your life beyond where it will begin and how long you will live. You will have no control over how your life will end and no memory of the length you had chosen. You will be born into the world you just left. Nothing will have changed. You currently have 129 years to live before we meet for the last time. Knowing this, make your choice.”

Then, as if from a particle of dust in the spotless room, a miniature earth grew into existence above the tablet until its surface could be seen in detail. Mr. Nguyen examined the moon slowly circling the planet and was tempted to pluck it out of orbit and look at it closer, but he quickly returned his gaze to the world before him. He remembered everything he could about what the world was like. After a few moments he made his decision. Niue. A small island in the Pacific Ocean. He loved the water and hoped to have a simple, yet enjoyable life there.

“Seventy-two years.”

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

Mr. Nguyen nodded.

“Place your hand here,” Remiel continued.

Mr. Nguyen followed the instructions and placed his hand on the tablet. Every memory withing him transferred to the tablet. As did Remiel’s memories, through his own hand placed on the underside of the tablet, until both of their collective memories had been extracted.

When Mr. Nguyen removed his hand. Remiel looked up at him and smiled. Then he guided his guest to the door behind him and ushered him through. The door closed and Remiel returned to the table and placed the tablet on its surface. All memories of his previous guest were gone. A new dossier was sitting on the table. He sat down and flicked through the pages absorbing the memories of his next guest. Remembering each time they met and the lives this one had lived. Once he felt prepared, he placed the information back on table and rose to greet his new visitor as she walked through the door.