Starting Lord Of The Rings...

Having read The Hobbit [The film of which will feature Benedict Cumberbatch's voice in two roles; Smaug the Dragon and The Necromancer. The good news just keeps on getting better!] at least seven times, I thought I should at last try to graduate to Tolkien's masterwork. I have started reading it five times; each time I got to the part where the Fellowship was formed and then I stopped. God knows why I can read The Hobbit so often but have such a difficulty trying to read The Lord of the Rings.

My edition

So I thought blogging my progress would help things along. Writing about my observations every day helped me to an absurd degree with The Name of the Rose, after all. I will be posting on my Lord of the Rings journey as time permits.

In other news, the first meeting regarding Tartuffe is happening this Tuesday at five. I am very excited to at last receive my rhyming script, and to share my ideas about how to interpret the Officer with the Director, who shall have to suffer a great deal from me on this point, I believe. However, she's a Doctor Who/Sherlock/Moffat-when-he's-not-being-stupid fan, so I likely won't be as insufferable to her as I am to other people.

Speaking of Doctor Who, I've finally got around to watching some of the more vintage episodes, with John Pertwee and Tom Baker and so on. I thought the time period in which it was made, but instead it just adds to the charm. Having been raised on Dangerman and The Avengers, maybe this is just me, but I feel as though the seventies-style sci-fi makes the series even better, and not sickeningly nostalgic either.

The story for the Femme Fatales Anthology is finished and in the process of being edited. I like the work I did with the story, though there are a couple of points I still want to tinker with. Maybe I will write more about it later.

Finally, because I believe I promised to, here is the monster essay on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I hope I did him proud.

The Name of the Rose and Its Various Influences

The Name of the Rose emulates both the detective genre and magic realism in this way: the common occurence of violence is made uncommon, so an explanation is sought where there is no explanation. The senselessness of magic realism is married with the detective genre to create an unsettling and original work. What is unsettling is not that the mystery has no conclusion, it is simpy there was not a mystery to begin with. The labyrinthine library with no beginning or end becomes the metaphor for this non-mystery.

The reader is left with the sense, in the words of Weldon Kees, 'that all the world is mad, that clues lead nowhere'. A motif of 20th century literature, the unresolved ending, is introduced to a 19th century mode of literature which seems more dependant than most on a finish that ties up all loose ends in a satisfactory package before the next installment. In The Name of the Rose, there will be no new installments: William is dead, Adso is haunted by the events of the book, and the abbey, the subject of their investigation is in ruins.

It is not immediately obvious that magic realism and the detective genre are compatible. Two such dissimilar styles with different audiences, times and cultures are not heir to too many comparisons or fusions. However, the crossovers that do exist between these two traditions of story-telling reveal much about their similarities.

First, there is a casual attitude to violence present in both modes. The action of Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue begins with a downright gleeful description of one of the women murdered:

'The throat was greatly chafed. There were several deep scratches just below the chin, together with a series of livid spots which were evidently the impression of fingers. The face was fearfully discoloured, and the eyeballs protruded. The tongue had been partially bitten through.' [88, Column A]

This Grand Guignol style of writing is emulated and then lampooned in Chronicle of a Death Foretold during the scene addressing the autopsy of Santiago Nasar:

'Half of the cranium had been destroyed by the trapanation, and the lady-killer face that death had preserved ended up having lost its identity. Furthermore, the priest had pulled out the sliced-up intestines by the roots, but in the end he didn't know what to do with them, and he gave them an angry blessing and threw them into the garbage pail.' [76]

Both employ prose which is sensationalistic to the point of frivolity. In Auguste Dupin's line of work, such melodrama and violence is commonplace and almost boring. Dupin comments on the brutality of the murders within the context of the plot, but only as a means to an end and not through any sympathy. His predecessor, Sherlock Holmes, notes the eloquence and not the violence of the crimes he is presented with. Such men would seem right at home in the villages of Marquez, fascinated with the misfortune of others to the point of indifference.

The subject of the supernatural becomes a common motif for both genres. Dupin and Holmes are now and again faced with crimes that appear to have a root in spirits; they have to dispel these notions almost immediately, or they are faced with complications not unlike the ones in The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. In Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin has to take it into account that he does not 'believe in praeternatural events' [92], revealing a necessity in ruling out such lines of reasoning. Misconceptions between science and magic are a prevalent problem in the world of detection. This motif comes up several times in The Name of the Rose.

Deduction itself is, as portrayed by Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a marriage of the practical versus the impractical. Many of their cases border upon impossible, even when explained by seeming logic. For instance, the entire premise of The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is hinged upon the discovery of a very large blue gemstone in the throat of a Christmas goose. The titular murders at the Rue Morgue were apparently without a motive because they were committed by an orangutang (proving that one does not necessarily need to read a story written in the twentieth century in order to have a non-ending). This absurdity within the frame of real life is the defining factor of magic realism.

The effect of the detective genre on magic realism is apparent when one reads Ibn-Hakam, Murdered in His Labyrinth by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, often influenced by English-language authors such as Robert Louis Stevensen, references Edgar Allan Poe and his detective Dupin several times in Ibn-Hakam. Borges blends the Dupinesque exploits of the two Cornish crime-fighting protagonists with several of his own motifs, such as his dark sense of humour, his fascination with labyrinths, and his inemitable prose:

'"Please- let's not multiply the mysteries," he said. "Mysteries ought to be simple. Remember Poe's purloined letter. Remember Zangwill's locked room."
"Or complex," volleyed Dunraven. "Remember the universe."' [256]

The viewpoint illustrated here is further explored in The Name of the Rose.

The Name of the Rose takes its queue from the works written in the mode of magic realism, specifically those of Borges. Apart from the numerous homages and references Eco makes to the author and his works, there is also a thematic unity and an affection for the stories from which he draws inspiration.

The most obvious parallel one can draw between the stories of Borges and The Name of the Rose is the role of books. In The Name of the Rose, the libary is the focal point of the abbey, a place that inspires both lust and reverence in its keepers. All of the characters the reader is introduced to are associated with the library in some way, and near the end of the piece, it is revealed that the Librarian is made Abbot upon the former Abbot's death. This is a matter of contention linked directly to the murders, as 'all those who die with blackened fingers know Greek' [505]. The monks, particularly Benno, the Libararian's assistant, have a single obsession; their 'lust is for books. Like all lusts... it is sterile and has nothing to do with love, not even carnal love..."' [478]

Meanwhile, the characters populating the stories of Jorge Luis Borges are all bibliophiles and well-learned, particularly the protagonist of The Book of Sand, widely accepted to be an avatar for the author himself. Like the monks are consumed with their all-powerful library, the protagonist of The Book of Sand 'becomes a prisoner of the Book (note capitalization)' [483], that, like sand, has no beginning or end.

In The Name of the Rose, the fixation on books, be they religious or not, stands as a metaphor for the growing influence and corruption of the Church in Medieval times. It is no coincidence that with little hesitation, the protagonist of The Book of Sand trades a valuable Bible given to him by his parents for the titular Book. The libary proves to be just as destructive a force as the Book; the narrator to the Borges piece considers destroying the book with fire, but 'I feared that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke' [483]. When the library in The Name of the Rose catches fire, it burns for 'three days and three nights' [605], three being a symbolic number which represents wholeness, and therefore a wholeness of consumption. Both pieces dabble in subtle and not-so-subtle religious allegory, a theme to be found in most works classified as magic realism.

The Name of the Rose is set in a time where religious mysticism, vestiges of pagan magic, and everyday life commonly merge. There is a fear of Satan that is as strong as reverence for God, a jarring concept in the reader's world, where there is little juxtaposition of these opposing forces. No accusation of criminal activity appears to be complete without reference to its 'diabolical cause' [27], and witchcraft, ghosts, and demons are still very tangible realities to the people populating the piece. The narrator, Adso, is confronted by a lustful man named Salvatore and told of a love spell that requires one to 'kill a black cat and dig out its eyes, then put them in two eggs of a black hen, one eye in one egg, one eye in the other' [371]. The acceptance on Adso's part of the reality of this spell suggests an extremely superstitious European society with a stronger faith than the Europe of the Enlightenment, for instance.

Another distinguishing feature of setting is that it is an Italy that is still using a hierarchical system in the style of feudalism. With this sort of system, everyone in the book has a follow the leader mentality all too similar to the attitudes of characters and societies in works of magic realism. With this hierarchical bent, there is also plenty of room for corruption. The priests in The Name of the Rose seem to feel that it is blasphemy to even consider that Christ was poor [403]. This may seem like satire, but the wealth of the abbey seems to be a matter of pride and not modesty to the Abbot. According to him, 'The abbey is small but rich' and there are 'one hundred and fifty servants for thirty monks' [31]. Any reminder about this sect of monks' apparent vow of poverty are met with accusations of heresy. One can find this sense of entitlement in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, when the villagers gather together many cratesful of roosters to make the indifferent visiting priest cockscomb soup [16].

One of the things that best defines magic realism is the casual attitude to violence in day to day life. this part of the genre is echoed by Eco in th nature of the murders that take place in the abbey. Like the village in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which it is always Monday, the monks in the abbey awake every morning to find that another one of them has been killed. They live in a world where one can be executed for maintaining that Christ laughed. And yet they are at first unperturbed by this, preferring to continue in the routine that is ingrained into their lives. Only William and Adso try and prevent the murders from happening, like the narrator's mother in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Unfortunately, in another parallel to the mother, they are helpless to stop the killings and as a result, the abbey, like the village, is destroyed.

Their willingness to try and investigate things that nobody else really wants an explanation to are what make William and Adso the bridges between the world of magic realism and the world of the detective genre. Indeed, the fact that they came in a pair, like a comedic duo akin to Vladimir and Estragon, with the same inequitable relationship, makes them reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, of Auguste Dupin and his anonymous companion. Like Watson and Dupin's companion, Adso loyally writes of everything that comes to pass under the tutelage of William, and acts as a foil to the other man's brilliance. In this respect, Eco is definitely paying an homage to the relationship dynamics of past crime-solving duos; it is of great relevance that William's full title is Brother William of Baskerville.

Also of great relevance is William's mode of deduction, more similar to the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes than to Chevalier Dupin. Like Holmes, William has a great deal of vanity, though not without reason. His first show of deduction, or induction as it is more correctly called, occurs in the first chapter of the narrative, when he locates a horse that had just gone missing from the abbey's stables. He explains his process and logic like this:

'"My good Adso," my master said, "during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. Alanus de Insulis said that

omnis mundi creatura
quasi liber et pictura
nobis est in speculum

and he was thinking of the endless array of symbols with which God, through his creatures, speaks to us of the eternal life. But the universe is even more talkative than Alanus thought, and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it always does in an obscure fashion) but also of other things, and then it speaks quite clearly."' [18]

And so on for three pages. Upon his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes establishes his 'science of deduction' in much the same way. Dr Watson is shocked and disbelieving upon finding one of his manuscripts, ambitiously called The Book of Life, which reads as thus:

                               '...So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.' [21]

Eco has taken the more or less secular philosophy of Sherlock Holmes and applied it to fit the teachings of an intensely devout Catholic monk. A brilliant subversion in a book that only continues to experiment with the ideas of Conan Doyle within a setting of magic realism.

However, the most surprising subversion of the work is that of the ending. In all of Sherlock Holmes and Dupin's stories, though the ending might not be satisfactory, it always ends well for the protagonists. On the four or five occasions Sherlock Holmes made a grave error in his calculations, grievous harm was always averted, as in Scandal in Bohemia, where the infamous Irene Adler decides to leave the country rather than continuing with her blackmailing scheme. Had she decided to do differently, it would have damaged the Great Detective's career rather than simply hurting his ego. However, in The Name of the Rose, William makes the grave mistake of trying to connect several hitherto unrelated events, and not only does he pay dearly, but the entire community he was trying to help does so as well. The device of the red herring, usually a harmless conceit thrown in to create suspense, is the single thing which finally puts the main characters in over their heads.

In a world where 'genre-writing' is looked down upon and seems to necessitates labels, it is comforting to know that there is a book with several literary roots and profound thought. The Name of the Rose is one of those books which shows that such works of literary esteem as Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The Book of Sand are linked to works such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It successfully gives context to both and shows that all books, well-written, can have merit.

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