Monday, January 30, 2017

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

Our book club began on a whim with a call to read A Tale of Two Cities. After meeting to discuss that book, we decided to keep it up. The book we chose to read next was Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. This book is considered the first modern novel. Clocking in at over 900 pages, slogging through it became a tall order. Since it was originally written in Spanish, some of it does not translate well. The translator of my edition, J. M. Cohen, freely admits that although he did his best, the humor does not always come through.

One drawback to this book is that we are missing the context. Apparently Cervantes is reacting to the saturation of his society with really bad books. These other novels tell the fantastical tales of knights and their adventures. The protagonists are over-the-top charicatures and magical contrivances abound. It is into this environment that Cervantes introduces his hero, Don Quixote.

Cervantes writes his tale with an interesting self-awareness. He proclaims himself, not the author of the story, but simply more of an editor of a story he discovered. Using this device gives the adventure the patina of non-fiction. Cervantes is unsure of the hero's real name, but knows he is now called Don Quixote de la Mancha. The old man has become obsessed with the tales of knights errant and fancies himself a member of their community. To the distress of his housekeeper and neice, and his friends the priest and the barber, he sets off to defend the weak and helpless, all for the glory of his lady Dulcinea, whom he has never met, accompanied by a simple-minded villager, Sancho Panza, to whom he promises a governership. 

In his madness, he sees ordinary things transformed into castles and giants. Although Sancho is not similarly endowed with this ability, Quixote feels confident that his interpretation reflects reality. Together, they have many adventures battling "evil" and helping the helpless. None of these exploits actually end well, but in Don Quixote's mind, he is the bravest and most successful knight of the realm. By using this device, seeing both Don Quixote's mind and the reality, Cervantes is making it clear that it is all nonsense and worse. People are actually getting hurt, mostly Sancho, property is being damaged, and the outcomes leave much to be desired. 

Throughout the book, Don Quixote is urged to return home, return to sanity, and burn his abominable books. For a short time after a particularly bruising run-in with a band of merchants whom he mistakes for knights intent on battling him, he does just this. But the madness eventually overcomes him and he and the faithful Sancho return to the road. 

Once again, we find Don Quixote battling shepherds, sheep, innkeepers, and anyone else he chances to meet. Time and again he is disasterously defeated, but each time, he soldiers on, believing himself to be on a sacred mission. With the promise of a governership always before him, Sancho remains a part of the misconceived operation. After being tossed in a blanket in a particulary terrifying spectacle, Sancho makes a statement that seems to reveal why he stays, "... such misfortunes are difficult to prevent, and if they come there's nothing for it but to hunch your shoulders, hold your breath, close your eyes, and let yourself go where fate and the blanket send you." (p. 163)

This seems to be Don Quixote's guiding principle as well. "To go where fate and the blanket send you." Book 1 is full of story after story of misadventure, each full of cringe-inducing tales. It ends with Sancho Panza appealing to Quixote's friends, the priest and the barber, to trick the addled man into returning home. They eventually, through a complicated and contrived plot, kidnap him and return the bruised and defeated old man to his bed. 

The author ends the book with alledged references to his knight errant in ancient manuscripts. The way the author inserts himself into the story is fun trick to distance himself from his own story, offering a simple morality tale he "discovered" and delivers for our consideration.

Apparently Cervantes promised a second book after the success of the first. Yet during his eleven year hiatus, someone else took it upon himself to continue the story. Book 2 opens a month after the first ended with a recognition of the counterfeit book and Cervante's desire to set the record straight. Once again, such a self-aware book is a delight. He repeatedly refers to errors in the previous book as printer errors. In this he shows a bit of Don Quixote in himself - it is never his fault when things go sideways. In the intervening month, while Don Quixote recovered in bed, the first book has made him and his adventures famous. 

The second book takes advantage of this renown. Now Don Quixote is recognized when he, to the disappointment of those around him, returns to the road. A new character is introduced in the person of a scholar, what they call a bachelor. He is fascinated by Don Quixote's exploits, but sees the need to help the crazy, old man. A plan is hatched in which the bachelor will disguise himself as a famous knight. He will challenge Don Quixote in battle and with his inevitable defeat, Don Quixote will promise to return home and give up all efforts at chivalry. Unfortunately the plan goes awry when our hero defeats the "Knight of the Mirrors."

Don Quixote believes it is time to finally meet his Dulcinea. Sancho is supposed to have visited her earlier, so he is to lead his master to the object of love. But Sancho lied and has no idea who she is. When he points to a random, ugly peasant girl as the damsel, Don Quixote is convinced she's been bewitched by nefarious forces. For the rest of the book, he is obsessed with disenchanting her and returning her into the glorious visage of which he believes her to be. 

Returning to the road, Don Quixote chances upon some wealthy fans of his feats of derring, a local Duke and Duchess. They indulge his fantasies for their own entertainment. They create increasingly complex scenarios in which Don Quixote can prove his mettle. Unfortunately they know he's insane, and they toy with him as their personal entertainment. This leads to some cruelty as they devise painful and complicated ways for Don Quixote to relieve Dulcinea of her enchantment. 

To sweeten the incentive to proceed through their gauntlet, the Duke gives Sancho the long hoped-for governorship. But his lackeys work hard to make it a miserable commission for the simple-minded companion. Nonetheless, Panza's uncomplicated folk wisdom serves him well, and he does a surprisingly good job in his duties. Yet the toll it takes on him brings him no happiness, and he eventually renounces his position.

Following that debacle, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza leave the home of the Duke and Duchess for the road once again. Similar adventures as before befall them, ending with a duel with the famous "Knight of the White Moon." The bachelor has recovered from his previous defeat and has set up the same challenge. A defeat means Don Quixote must return home and renounce knight errantry. This time, Don Quixote is soundly conquered, and complies with his promise. 

Depressed, Don Quixote returns home, but not without a few more adventures along the way. He begins to dream of a simple shepherd's life. His friends indulge this hopeless delusion. 

Finally in the last chapter, Don Quixote recognizes the error of his ways. In a rare moment of clarity, he renounces the books and stories that led to his delusions. In preparing his will, he requires that his neice marry a man wholly unfamiliar with the detrimental tales. On the last page, he quietly succumbs to a life marred by misadventure and sadness knowing he wasted much of his time on earth. He dies in his bed.

Cervantes story is somewhere between a fable and a chronicle. On the one hand it is a fantastical tale, stretched beyond all credulity. On the other hand, he presents Don Quixote's story as a morality play, to exhort us not to fall into the same trap. So while he tries to a present a slightly fictionalized account of what COULD happen to one immersed in the silly novels of his day, it seems highly unlikely. 

I believe at the core, Don Quixote is searching for meaning. Like all mortals, we want to know we were placed on this earth for a purpose. Don Quixote's error is in assuming his purpose to be that of a knight errant. What is standing in his way is reality. He is not a knight errant. No one is. The stories of the day are make-believe. He never overcomes this obstacle because unfortunately, reality is a b-word. 

While I sympathize somewhat with Don Quixote, the reader is supposed to relate to the niece and friends of Don Quixote who love him and want him to return to sanity. It's unclear why they hold him so dear. He clearly doesn't care about their opinions. Because his actions lead to the abuse of his faithful squire, Sanchez Panza, it's hard to muster up the requisite sympathy for our knight. 

I believe Cervantes is making the argument that a life devoted to silliness is a life wasted. I think this is true. However, because Quixote doesn't learn his lesson until the very last pages of a 900-page book, I don't believe the message is adequately communicated. Instead the common takeaway is that of silly stories of a crazy man "tilting at windmills." Cervantes' novel becomes what he opposes — the silly, fantastical tale of a knight errant and his lady love. 

However, I think it is true that we all need purpose in life. I think it's also true that some waste their lives on meaninglessness. Sometimes the source is obvious, whether it's pleasure-seaking or fame. But sometimes it's less obvious. We can waste our lives on things that seem to have value but often are just at ephemeral and meaningless, and ultimately, worthless. I think of those who seek to do good and in reality hurt their own cause. Women who march in disjointed "women's marches" declaiming non-existent oppression waste valuable time and resources. Saving the planet gives many that sense of meaning they crave, but it's a fool's errand. Many of these kinds of focuses provide, not meaning and true purpose, but a false idol.

I believe our ultimate purpose is to glorify God in whatever position He has placed us. In my case, I am a wife and mother. My job is to work at those tasks to the best of my abilities. Supporting my husband and raising my children glorifies God as I follow His Word in carrying out my duties. I have no need for an alternate purpose, no need to save the planet or fight for ephemeral "justice." I put my trust in Him and ask my family to do the same. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer

After reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World, I continued on by reading The History of the Medieval World. I’m sure I will also read, The History of the Renaissance World at some point soon. 

I enjoy reading her history books because, although long, they are relatively quick snippets of historical happenings as she jumps from country to country. This gives the reader a chance to see what else is going on “meanwhile, back on the farm,” so to speak. 

The only thing I struggle over is the fact that this summary will take me FOREVER!. I write these so that I don’t forget the material that I spent weeks reading. I know writing it up is a good exercise, but it’s a little like eating broccoli. Good for me, but hard to swallow.

So here goes.

The book opens on Constantine and his conversion to Christianity. The extent to which his faith was genuine can be debated, but politically, “he saw in Christianity a new and fascinating way of understanding the world, and in Christians a mode of what Roman citizens might be, bound together by loyalty that transcended but did not destroy their local allegiances.” (p. 7) Christianity would be the glue that would hold the disparate empire together. However, like all totalitarian rulers, Constantine would only be able to hold the empire together through the force of his will. His sons waited in the wings to grab power and Persia watched for an opportunity to attack.

Meanwhile, in the East, the Han dynasty fell and the Jin took its place. However it couldn’t hold onto the “Mandate of Heaven” for long. The north fell to barbarian tribes, while the East remained in Jin control longer. Yet it was unstable. During this time, Buddhism increased in influence with the population.

After the death of Constantine, as expected, his three sons battled for power. Eventually, his second son Constantius prevailed, yet he was eventually forced to share power with his cousin, Julian. Upon the death of Constantius, Julian assumed full control. He renounced Christ and tried to return the Empire to its former glory by returning to the Roman religion. After dying in a battle with the Persians, he position went to Jovian. He returned the empire to Christianity, but he was a weak leader and left no heir.

Eventually co-emperors Valentinian and his brother Valens rule the empire, but repeated attacks and loses to the surrounding barbarian nations weaken the divided empire. After the death of Valens, Theodosius takes over in the East. He tries to enforce one “catholic” church. By making the Goths allies instead of enemies he buys a time of peace. However, he has only papered over the real differences between the peoples. After killing a power rival out of Britain, a Spaniard named Magnus Maximus, and marrying the sister of Valentinian II, Theodosius assumes the head of the entire empire. He also finds he has to subject himself to a very powerful church and must ban any act of worship to the old Roman gods. 

Upon the death of Theodosius, his young sons (ages 18 and 10) take the helm, each one taking half. However, they are only the puppets of powerful generals, Stilcho in the West and Rufinus in the East. After killing Rufinus, Stilcho crosses paths with the powerful Eutropius who eventually banishes Stilcho from any position of power in the East. The Empire has officially turned against itself.

The Western half of the Roman Empire begins to crumble as the Vandals move all the way in and sack Rome. The echoes of this debacle would be felt all the way in North Africa where a monk named Augustine writes Confessions and City of God based on Rome’s fall. Meanwhile, in the East, Theodosius II and the church struggle with theological issues, barely even registering the calamity on the other side.

While the West becomes slowly taken completely over by the barbarians, the Huns are amassing power to the North. Eventually the sister of the emperor agrees to marry Attila the Hun in order to make space for peace. But before Honoria can can marry him, Attila attacks Italy, defeating the Western emperor. Eventually the Pope make a peace with Attila, effectively ending the Huns opportunity for nationhood. Attila goes on to marry another woman and dies the night of the ceremony, leaving an enormous power vacuum. 

In order to strengthen the East, the emperor tried to enforce an orthodoxy on the people in opposition to the Roman pope. In Persia, they too believe more orthodoxy will help cement their power. Therefore they turn to the persecution of Christians, Jews, and Armenians for political reasons. 

Meanwhile, over in the barely civilized lands of England, Ireland, and Scotland, the Irish tribes are united by Niall. At the same time, a Roman slave named Patrick escapes captivity. But he returns to Ireland, bringing with him the Christian message. In Britain, Vortigern struggles to hold onto power and invites the Angle and Saxon tribes to help him fight against the Picts. Britain will never be the same again. Eventually a leader named Ambrosias Aurelianus will give birth to the Arthurian legends. 

Over on the continent, the Western Roman Empire officially disintegrates due to multiple barbarian attacks. In a crushing, and ignominious end, the last emperor is kidnapped and not replaced. It is there that St. Benedict leads a very devout group of followers. The Eastern half is not faring well either. They have tried to maintain the fiction that they still are a Roman Empire, but it is increasingly in the hands of barbarian leaders. Finally, the East loses all contact with the West. Justin and his nephew Justinian rise to power with the support of the “Blue” fans.

While the West is ruled by various barbarian tribes, these people groups battle to make themselves powerful nations. Clovis rises to the top of the Frankish king candidates. “From 509 until his death, Clovis ruled from his new capital, Paris, as the first Christian king of the Franks, the first law-giving king of the Franks, the first king of all the Franks. His descendants, taking their name from the legendary warrior Merovech, would occupy the throne for the nest two centuries as the Merovingian dynasty — the first royal dynasty of the Franks.” (p. 175)

Justinian involves himself in a very controversial marriage an actress and ex-hooker. She is a newly converted Christian and together, they work to reform the complex laws that have evolved in the East. On the authority of Christ, they expel heretics and try to purify the faith. They seek to revive the old Roman Empire. He is able to have some success wresting old lands from the barbarians, but plagues, intrigues, and the Persians trouble him at home. Upon his death, his incompetent and possible mad nephew, Justin II takes over.

While China is the most advanced civilization in the Far East, the 3 kingdoms of Korea engaged in continuous battles for supremacy on the peninsula. Japan, meanwhile, starts to unify, tentatively accepting Buddhism, following the Chinese example, and creates a “Mandate of Heaven” of their own. Over in China, the short-lived Sui dynasty finally manages to unite China. They reinforce the Great wall and build the Grand Canal. As they try to take advantage of Korean infighting, they suffer defeat. Eventually the Tang dynasty replaces the Sui. 

Clovis’s kingdom splits in 3 upon his death. This leads to constant war between the areas. Finally, 3 “mayors” are given the power in each region, all allegedly under a central king. But this ruler is largely ignored and impotent. 

Because the tribes in the West are largely Christian, the Pope still has influence. He sends Christian missionaries to Britain, bringing the unifying presence of a religion and civilization to the land still under control of battling tribes. It is here that Saint Augustine works to spread the gospel message. 

Now called the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern half of the old Roman empire appears on the verge of collapse as their neighbors to the North invade time and again. Yet in a miraculous series of events, the Byzantines are saved and their enemy the Persians weakened. 

Over in a little noticed part of the world, Muhammed is born in Mecca. His religious visions lead to persecution and he fled to Medina. Eventually his religion becomes entwined with a political formation. He and his followers conquer the disbelieving Mecca. Upon his death, Abu Bakr led the fight for all of Arabia and against the weakened Persians. They threaten Byzantium as well. In addition, they take over Jerusalem. This rapid expansion tests the new faith and their ability to govern. They have difficulty remaining united. A struggle begins over the succession of new ruler between the Shi’ite and the Sunni divisions. Once they finally coalesce around a competent ruler they take North Africa as well. But the prize is Byzantium, whom they are unable to completely defeat. 

After taking North Africa, the Muslims move up into Hispania, taking it from the Visigoths who ruled there. Eventually the Frankish Charles Martel defeats their march North and Eastward throughout the rest of the continent. 

Meanwhile, Byzantium is in the midst of yet another theological fight. By destroying and condemning all icons, they pick a fight with Rome. This eventually leads to the Papacy gaining the Papal States as an independent entity. 

Upon the death of Charles Martel, his successor Pippin and then Charlemagne make alliances with the Pope. This powerful entity leads to Charlemagne’s recognition as the Holy Roman Emperor, giving him dominion over the Italian Lombard lands. While over in the Eastern half, chaos reigns eventually giving way to the most ignoble outcome - a woman, Empress Irene, on the throne. When Bulgarians almost destroy Byzantium, they make an alliance with Charlemagne. But it is very weak. 

At this time, the far-flung, far from united, Muslim Empire is divided into 3 components over power struggles and succession issues. It continues to fracture as the Sunni and Shi’ite divisions sharpen. The Shi’ites believe the ruler should be a direct descendant of Mohammed. In addition, the Turks rise to power to challenge the movement of the Islamic Empire. 

Once again, another kingdom is split over succession issues, that of Charlemagne. His Frankish Empire is weakened when it is divided between his two sons. At this time, the Vikings come down from the North into the Eastern part of Europe where the Rus hold power. Eventually they also set their sights on Byzantium. The Eastern Frankish kingdom also battles Byzantium for control of the lands between them. The Bulgarians get into it too, asserting a different form of Christianity. This eventually leads to the Cyrillic alphabet as missionaries Cyril and his brother translate the Bible for the people to the north of Byzantium in an effort to secure their loyalties. 

The Vikings are also moving South into Britain. Alfred the Great is able to battle them to a standstill, but it is clear that they will remain a permanent presence. Across the channel, the Franks decide to pacify the invading Vikings by giving them their own area to govern, Normandy. The Eastern Frankish Empire finally succumbs to the invading Germanic tribes. Eventually this area will become Germany. Alfred’s successors will eventually succeed in uniting Britain, but will lose the throne to the Scandinavians. 

Over in the East, the Byzantines are battling with the northern Bulgarians. This nascent nation-state is trying to achieve a recognition of its status. They battle to a stalemate. The Vikings, settling in among the Rus people have taken on that identity. After converting to Christianity, they also begin to threaten the Byzantine Empire to their south. 

In the Muslim world, the three areas have solidified into 3 distinct areas, Spain, Egypt/Northern Africa, and Arabia. In the middle of this, Persia begins to reassert itself leading to the fall of the Arabian Caliph. They would soon face an invading force in the Crusaders. Otto had come to power in the Holy Roman Empire. He had consolidated his power with the help of the Pope and together they called for a Crusade against the Islamic regime occupying the Holy Land. To the West, Hugh Capet came to power over the Frankish Kingdom. Modern dynasties began to take shape.

Back to the Western half of the old Roman Empire, Otto III, king of Germany, finds he no longer needs the Pope’s blessing. He ends up appointing his own, German Pope. This is met with anger from the Pro-Rome forces. There is much back and forth, determining who the Pope should be, but the local situation proves decisive. The Normans have infested Italy. The eventual German king dies, leaving a child as an heir. The Pope made common cause with the neighboring Normans and the Holy Roman Empire is split.

After years of trying to conquer England once and for all, the Normans of Denmark finally manage to steal the throne. However, they really just want to settle in the land and so through intermarriage, an Englishman, the last living son of Ethelred the Unready is poised to inherit the throne. Unfortunately, Edward the Confessor left no heir. His confidant Godwin manages to manipulate the situation to get his son Harold on the throne upon Edward’s death. Unfortunately, William of Normandy believes he has a claim as well. After defeating his brother, Harold turned to the invading Normans. He lost in the Battle of Hasting in 1066. The Vikings had found another way to the throne.

Meanwhile, far to the East, Byzantium is crumbling before the advancing Turks. While in the West, the King Henry IV is finding it difficult to remain at odds with the Pope. He is excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII. This ultimately leads to a humility pleading for mercy and repentance before he is allowed back into the fold. When the desperate East calls Henry IV for help to fight off the Normans in their small remaining territory in Southern Italy, Pope Urban calls for a Crusade. But the Crusaders don’t stop in Italy. Eventually they continue all the way to the Holy Land and capture Jerusalem after 2 years of fighting. These holy fighters eventually form a religious order. Like Constantine at the beginning, politics and the church remain intimately intertwined.