Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

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Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


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If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 3 of 4

After a few weeks’ rest, massages, and chiropractic adjustment, I recovered from a spinal arthritis flare-up in early September. Despite the pain, my strenuous photographic efforts to capture speedy, high-flying objects at the Cleveland National Air Show paid off with a post of my best shots from the day.

In early October, my husband and I took a refreshing vacation to California, visiting my brother’s family, some wine and hard cider makers, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and, for the first time, Yosemite National Park. I fell ill during my last trip out there in April 2015, but I made it through this one and the rest of October virus free. Health and sense of mission restored, I’m on to the second half of this series.

In text, maps, and photos, Part 1 started with how the Outlander book and TV series inspired and triggered our Argyll adventure; the first post then showcased our dynamic drive toward the Argyll coast. Part 2 featured highlights of our first stops upon reaching the sea: Crinan Canal, the Paps of Jura, and Kilmory Knap Chapel.

The Outlander Season 4 premiere starting November 4th at 8pm EST on STARZ brings long-awaited relief from Droughtlander and takes the saga into the New World. While I’m eager to follow Jamie and Claire on the next phase of their on-screen adventures, my own travel in Scotland still calls me back. Scotland is, after all, the seed of Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Outlander book series phenomenon, which last month took the number 2 slot of the Great American Read‘s top novels.

Venturing farther inland for Part 3, this post shares some of my most cherished moments from our long day in Argyll with Àdhamh Ó Broin, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and their STARZ TV adaptation.

Late Morning in Mid Argyll

Third Thread

Kilmory Oib

We had taken East Loch Sween Road into Kilmory, drove south to Kilmory Knap Chapel, and returned on the same path. It was a single-track road, known by road management officials as C42. A Scottish government guide explains that “C-roads, like B-roads, are minor, local routes but are not signposted or shown on maps.” However, OpenStreetMap.org was my source for both names of the road because it’s awesome. Score one against the web of Old World secrets.

Road C42 becomes Achnamara Road toward Barnluasgan, where we tracked back to the southwest on B8025 and soon reached our destination. Kilmory Oib township ruins are the moss-eaten traces of a settlement abandoned in the 19th century. Online satellite maps, even OpenStreetMap.org, indicate no name for the site, though a zoomed-in satellite view on Google Maps offers such age-old markers as a low, road-side fence and two discernible standing stones. It seems you can find the settlement itself only by knowing its name and location beforehand. So much for blasting through Scotland’s secrets.

Of course, we had a secret weapon. Our native Scottish guide Àdhamh brought his insider’s knowledge to our discovery of Kilmory Oib. After reading the placards at the clearing’s opening, I then researched further to inform the visit.

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Google Maps

What’s left of Kilmory Oib lies within North Knapdale Forest, planted 100 years ago in the heart of North Knapdale. Most of the area is managed by Forestry Commission Scotland. On the ground, two lochs and a bed and breakfast neighbor the former township: Loch Barnluasgan to the northeast where the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trial successfully reintroduced beavers to the area, Loch Coille-Bharr to the east, and the White Rock Bed & Breakfast to the north-northwest. Kilmory Oib is closest to Loch Coille-Bharr, but Loch Sween and the Sound of Jura are also not far away.

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OpenStreetMap. Standing stones, too? See “Stones of Kilmory Oib” (The Hazel Tree blog)

From the parking lot, we walked south up a dirt- and grass-covered path over the modest grade of a hill. At our feet I pointed out a large black beetle scurrying in the direction we headed. Like a child discovering nature for the first time, Àdhamh stopped to inspect it, as if he were stopping to smell the flowers. A true nature lover.

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Portion of placard at the Kilmory Oib site, courtesy of the Dalriada Project

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The path opened onto a clearing in the forest bathed in the rising sun. An early autumn, late morning light in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere, its brightness shone high enough to illuminate and low enough to dazzle. The sun’s position in the clear sky made a pleasing contrast for photos, and it gave this Ohioan the impression of an earlier hour than it was. A peaceful scene unfolded when we met the clearing strewn with ancient and modern relics.

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After my extensive map research for the trip and before we arrived on site, I had never seen a Scottish or Gaelic place name quite like “Oib.” Even Scottish people will pronounce names slightly differently across regions and time, but some guidelines assist the non-native Gaelic speaker. The consonant is simple: “b” here is pronounced like “p.” The vowel in “Oib” is something either like “up” but with a slightly rounded vowel into the “o” in “hop,” or “oip” as in “voip” but with a bit of a slide toward the long “i” sound in “hi.” In sum, close to “Op” or “Ipe” in English.

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The Forestry Commission explains the meaning: “Usually referred to simply as Kilmory, the township is part of the estate known as Oib, or Oab, meaning bay or inlet in Gaelic” (Source: “Kilmory Oib,” Forestry Commission Scotland (current owner); contents menu includes links to information about a dozen other historic townships). The closest water body is Loch Coille-Bharr, neither bay nor inlet, but Scotland can be such a moist place, I suppose it matters little. A canal, river, burn, or sea, and precipitation, are frequent encounters. See my discussion on the variable labeling of place names in the sections “Dividing a Nation” and “Notes on Area Names” of the post “An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3.”

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In 2016, the ground brushed with dew and waterlogged besides, its dense green things slowly swallowed and partly camouflaged many of the decrepit stone structures in the morning sun. Some shapes from the low piles of flat stones suggested old livestock pens, now carpeted with moss. Other forms announced cottage or barn walls, spattered with lichens. Ferns and bracken, a russet brethren showing fern its future, rounded out the signs of growth. The layers of life blanket these landmarks of bygone people and preserve the dark, damp earth underneath.

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The Campbell clan owned Kilmory in the 1800s, but due to bankruptcy, ownership passed from Neil Campbell to Neil Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1785. Forestry Commission Scotland is the current owner (“Kilmory Oib”). During our visit, only two other visitors walked nearby and were on their way out when we arrived, but more than plant and fungal life stirred on the site. As it scooched slowly across the jagged stone surface atop a wall close to the trail, a little curl of motion attracted our attention. Again our guide picked up and examined the creature—a fuzzy grey-blue caterpillar with thin white striping and russet-orange bands across the stripes. It wore its own clan’s tartan. With visible signs of fertile land over the buried strata of past farming and fishing communities, could the insect’s glossy wings emerge to echo the plaid? And would it be Campbell, Malcolm or just Clan Butterfly?

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Do you know this species? The caterpillar, not the hand. That’s Àdhamh’s.

Across the grounds, enclosed on one side by a crest of evergreens, some of the narrower end walls of the dwellings remain intact to the apex, like a peppering of stone arrows pointing skyward. They are evidence of the roofs’ gable style of only two slopes, a Dalriadian feature from 18th-century architecture of the southwest Highlands (“The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill,” p. 6). Although similar sheltering can be supposed across this collection of buildings, the dearth of surviving walls and roofs leaves mysterious precisely how the structures must have appeared when last they were whole.

Now, one large tree that appeared to be in the cypress family twists its way up through the center of a building space, snug against the west-side escarpment. A fruit tree, too, sidles up to a smaller jagged wall remnant on the township’s opposite end.

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Àdhamh asked me if he could have copies of my snapshots for a story about the site. I was happy to oblige and, from that point, diligently recorded the scene.

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Before leaving, Àdhamh and I became photo subjects for my husband. Leaning on either side of an ancient cross slab (standing stone with a Christian cross on it) next to a water well filled to the ground surface, we struck a handful of cheeky poses.

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It wasn’t the Colosseum, nothing so imposing as Linlithgow Palace or other crumbling Scottish castles. Instead, it was an intimate look at the shadows cast by a deserted set of humble communities. Kilmory Oib is an example of not-uncommon displacement from a not-so-distant Scottish past. It is only one of thousands of places where Scottish tenants were forced out by Scottish landowners, their own clan chiefs, or left from threat of clearance when they had no land rights, funds, or legal recourse. These Highland Clearances occurred over an extended period, lasting from after the final failed Jacobite Rising of 1745 at Culloden Battlefield until well into the 19th century.

To varying degrees for about 100 years, Scottish landlords evicted their tenants, whose families had farmed or fished there for centuries, to make room for more economical sheep farming. Known as infamous by some and controversial by others, the Clearances helped destroy clan culture, shrink the rural population of Scots in the Highlands and Islands, and push them into the Lowlands, out to the coast, or, if they could afford it, out of Scotland altogether. Today, land rights, property ownership, resource management, and conservation remain salient issues in Scotland, especially in rural areas.

Although the exact reasons and timing for Kilmory Oib’s end are uncertain, recent excavation and study of the site have shed some light on the context.

The Kilmory Oib settlement may have been abandoned “not long after the [nearby] Arichonan clearance . . . . [, which] took place in 1848 [as] part of the reorganisation of the estates owned by the Malcolms of Poltalloch, the Oib Estate purchased by them in 1798. The active role played by . . . surrounding settlements, including Kilmory, in the disturbances that accompanied the Arichonan clearance, suggest that this opposition was triggered by the threat of a wider clearance programme in North Knapdale” (Source: conclusions section of The Dalriada Project’s Kilmory Oib, North Knapdale: Data Structure Report,” Roderick Regan, 2008, pp. 11-12, Kilmartin House Museum).

More about the former township’s particular story can also be found at Forestry Commission Scotland’s page dedicated to the site. Tucked away without a landmark on the road nearby, like many long-abandoned settlements, the modesty of Kilmory Oib belies its complex, and partly ancient, history in Argyll.

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Reflecting on our visit stirred my foreigner’s sense of intrigue at a sight so rare in the U.S.: overgrown ruins made of stone. We, too, have ghost towns and run-down urban neighborhoods, but the American city version means exposed rebar, toppled concrete, rusted steel, and broken asphalt. Besides the obvious uniqueness of castle ruins, rural Scotland’s fragments are usually different. The age of Kilmory Oib and its quiet country setting add an irresistible pastoral romanticism to my view of its loss.

But what really is the ruin of a community, a nation, of a dream, an idea, a belief? While the result of misfortune, remnants cultivate a fortitude in shared memory, the roots of a people’s hope for a better future, a way through the challenges that tempt us greatly to give up. Something survives on which to build again. Without those seeds, a glimpse of real alternatives, we capitulate easily.

Without seeing ruins for the living past they represent, our sense of history is stunted along with our capacity for empathy. Our souls are diminished by the very erasure of signs of endings from the past. Without a tangible record, we may doubt, misremember, and completely forget historic events. It may follow, then, that preservation of all sorts of ruins help keep willing hearts awake to see, understand, and consider the needs of others as we prioritize peace and justice alike.

By marking our losses, ruins call us to create a more reasonable and compassionate world. “To all those we have lost . . .” toasts Claire Fraser with a dram of whisky in Outlander STARZ episode 304, “Of Lost Things.”

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Loch-side lunch in Tayvallich

Cutting across mid-Argyll, the Crinan Canal serves as northern border to Knapdale, Tayvallich’s surrounding home, and divides Kintyre Peninsula from the mainland. The canal connects salty Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura, and Tayvallich lies just south of these intersections, near the middle of the peninsula. See lower left on map below.

Like Crinan Coffee Shop, Tayvallich Coffee Shop gave us a lunch-time view of the inlet, docks, and boats. We could also see the other side of Loch a’ Bhealaich, at the edge of which dwells the village.

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Clockwise from lower left: Tayvallich, Kilmory Oib township ruins, Crinan, A’ Moine Mhòr (The Great Moss), and Dunadd Fort. Yellow bubbles mark my account’s saved locations. Snapshot from Google Maps; darker text added using photo editor program.

Vessels were plentiful as for a busy day but not quite a special event—some at anchor, some docked, of sail and of motor. As I learned from Gazetteer for Scotland, along with the area’s forestry tradition, both fishing and tourism have made up the life blood of the village.

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Loch Sween, another sea loch, feeds the inlet from the east. Though subject to tides, Sween with its castle of the same name is substantial enough to spread its wealth into nooks and crannies like Tayvallich’s. Anglicized from Taigh a’ Bhealaich, the Gaelic name translates into something like “house of the pass” or “house in the valley,” depending on which source you consult. In that valley house’s coffee shop, I ate a lovely omelet before we left for our next destination.

Àdhamh and I discussed place names and poetry along the way. I would ask him to repeat the Gaelic names he rattled off as we passed, and then pronounce them in my turn. At other times, I took more careful note, gathering spellings as well.

Hear Àdhamh and me pronounce and spell the Gaelic name for Tayvallich:
 


In asking my husband and me about our jobs, Àdhamh opened a path to more of our shared interests. He and I are both educators, both artistic in some way, and both happened at the time to be working on a project involving Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels. I told him how I’d just started a spin-off novel based on Through the Looking-Glass, and he told me about his work to translate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Scottish Gaelic. Writing a book is hard; I can’t imagine having to translate an entire novel.

At any rate, the three of us all love learning, and Àdhamh and I work with language, literature, poetry, and song. Next time we meet, we’ll have to have a sing-along or something. Later in the day, toward evening, I discovered I would not be equal to a duet with such a voice.

Two years later, I’ve followed a referral he made to a famous Scottish Gaelic nature poem “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” (“Praise of Ben Dorain”) by Duncan Ban MacIntyre. Like the mountain it praises, the poem, Àdhamh said, is something special. I investigated to find out why and how.

Originally written in Gaelic, published in Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s collected poems (1751), the poem tells the pastoral story of a beloved mountain in what was once northern Argyllshire and Perthshire, the poet’s home region. Today, you can see Beinn Dorain’s almost perfectly conical shape grow larger in your windshield driving the A82 north from Tyndrum toward Bridge of Orchy, as we did on the way to Glencoe two days later.

In the poem, through a first-person speaker, a deer hunt occurs on the mountain, but for sustenance, not sport. The piece is highly descriptive and reads well in a good English translation. I’ve also heard it spoken in Gaelic, which was quite beautiful.

According to a 2016 article in The National, self-described as “The Newspaper That Supports an Independent Scotland,” the poem has rather complex form and soulful content. Like much Scottish poetry, it was constructed to be played and sung rather than simply spoken. An unnamed author declares, “Its shape is essential to its meaning. Composed in the musical structure of a pibroch – in Gaelic the spelling is piobaireachd – the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.”

Identifiable sections of the poem include a main theme in three parts, a second movement that develops each of those, repetition of the main theme, another movement, and so on. Three journeys occur between themes, then a synthesis of all prior elements–a climactic deer-killing scene. The song moves in circles as new material comes into the chronological plot, establishing a reader expectation of renewal and drama.

The prevailing mood, The National argues, is a question for Scottish readers and listeners. Exultation is there, but so are sadness and violence, suggesting wrath. What are the sources and the objects of those emotions? Answers may help decide the role of “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain” in Scottish literary history and politics.

Passionate writers tend to fixate, and in the article they speak with a unified voice. Its title claims a premeditated “manifesto for land reform” on MacIntyre’s part, but The National also admits this is “not explicitly depicted in the poem,” but rather “its historical context implies it.” That’s quite a leap of logic. If every historical context played the predominant role in all of literature, there would be little need or inclination to study it through any other lens, including solely by its own merits and content.

Literary criticism moves us beyond such a limited perspective for 21st-century analysis. Besides, among other relevant facts, Duncan Ban MacIntyre fought on the Hanoverian side of the ’45 Rising, not the Jacobite side. So, historical context argues at least partially the other way in this case. The article then claims an environmental conservationist purpose to the poem, as distinguished from a work praising human or religious subjects. While the content of the poem does focus on nature and wildlife, plus the destruction and loss of a piece of it, Ban MacIntyre also wrote a poem praising the king.

Literature can be interpreted to mean what we wish it to, but perhaps first we must read for ourselves to determine whether a message exists, waxes inherently political, or just depicts such things as the human experience of the interplay between life and death.

Excerpted from Alan Riach’s translation posted at Kettillonia, the cyclical rhythm of the “chorus,” or main theme, is reinforced with internal rhyme in “Praise of Ben Dorain”:

Praise over all to Ben Dorain –
She rises beneath the radiant beams of the sun –
In all the magnificent range of the mountains around,
So shapely, so sheer are her slopes, there are none
To compare; she is fair, in the light, like the flight
Of the deer, in the hunt, across moors, on the run,
Or under the green leafy branches of trees, in the groves
Of the woods, where the thick grass grows,
And the curious deer, watchful and tentative,
Hesitant, sensitive: I have had all these clear, in my sight.

Whatever else the poem may be or mean, however we may appropriate it, at least Àdhamh was right. It is special and deserves more recognition by a wider audience.

As a musical man himself, Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin would have to be keenly aware of Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his iconic song-poem. At our next stop, our host shared some other tunes in the Scottish tradition by playing his bagpipes for us, which he brought along for the occasion.


Mid-Day in Mid Argyll

Fourth Frontier

After lunch in Taigh a’ Bhealaich (Tayvallich), and on more than one occasion that day, I was trapped. As the guys left the vehicle, I remained locked in the back seat of our rental car like a child mistrusted with her own safety. Despite calling out, I had to wait a beat or two for them to realize my plight and then for my husband to figure out the lock situation so as to set me free.

It seems the back doors automatically lock on the 4-door Vauxhall Corsa when the driver closes his door. An odd feature to set as a default, I thought. The first time it happened, I suspected my husband of jumping the gun on locking up before I had a chance to get out, but after the second time he swore he didn’t do it, the nature of the issue became clearer. After my release, it was smooth sailing–almost.

Dunadd Fort, ancient seat of Dalriada Scots

Not quite fit for munro bagging (climbing mountains of a certain height in Scotland), I climbed up Dunadd Fort hill and felt my lungs fighting before I reached the top. It’s not really up that high, but the rugged terrain requires the climber’s legs to stretch farther for most steps than on a smooth grade.

Fortunately, the plant specimens among the uplifted rocks made for a convenient excuse to take photo breaks. The creases and sloping shelves in the rock were lovely, adorned with tufts of still-blooming heather, fern, and wild grasses.

Once the center of the Gaelic kingdom of Dàl Riata, or Dalriada, the artifacts of Dunadd Fort monument tell the tale of the first Scots and the first kings of Scotland, 8th century A.D. But the site was in use as early as the 5th century A.D.

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Archaeological research conducted in the early 1980s helped stretch the history of its use as far back as the Iron Age, and further evidence suggests its importance persisted through the 1500s, the late medieval period. All told, therefore, Dunadd was something more than a monument for 2,500 years.

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Dunadd Fort, fellow visitors with dog

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Fence and gate to Dunadd Fort hill

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“An Dùn Rìoghail” – “The Royal Fortress.” All placards on site provided under stewardship of Historic Environment Scotland.

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In early medieval Scotland, Dàl Riata leaders became kings when they stepped into a stone footprint, still discernible today. This “inauguration stone” is shown in these pictures as item 3.

The hilltop features of some ramparts (2) and a citadel (5), or upper courtyard, loom over the “traces of buildings” (4).

From there, steep cliffs on the far side from the parking lot plunge into the surrounding farmland with cattle and sheep on the plain.

A’ Moine Mhòr

As we looked out over that plain, known as the Moine Mhòr (Great Moss) bog, also a designated national nature preserve, Àdhamh played a few tunes on his bagpipes for us, including “The Piper’s Warning.”

The story goes: A piper is imprisoned at a castle and by playing his pipes warns his beloved son to stay away, lest he too be captured.

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Àdhamh shared the lyrics in English for us, noting that the Highland Scots had no embarrassment about calling fellow men “my love” because they’re so “[expletive deleted] hard.” That is, Highlander men are so manly in the sense of having impervious strength that they fully own what, say, the Sassenach might consider effeminate endearments between them.

Whether this really explained the choice of phrase or Àdhamh just wanted to dispel any suspicions of sexual overtones, I do not know. But it was clear, because he was barely audible and did not smile, that Àdhamh was proud of the Highlander reputation for “hardness,” or hardiness, this bit of his cultural heritage. It made us smile in turn.

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As the sunshine beamed on, visible in the distance from atop Dunadd Fort was an isolated, ruined cottage Àdhamh admired and dreamed of owning on the Moss. Beyond were lochs and hills; behind those, the west coast. A wide, winding stream reflecting bright blue sky ran through the farmland below the remnants of Dàl Riata’s royal center.

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Starting in the northeast and proceeding past Dunadd and beyond the Moine Mhòr National Nature Preserve, the River Add bulges again, running roughly parallel to the Crinan Canal, as it finds its way to the Sound of Jura at Loch Crinan, a wide-mouthed inlet just east of Crinan Harbour.

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Dunadd was one of my husband’s and my favorite parts of our day. Fellow visitors, one of whom Àdhamh recognized and greeted, and his humble piping at the cliff’s edge made our time at the ancient site extra special.

From the Trossachs to the seaside and curling back inland, so far that day, we had gone to places that offered wide sweeps of panoramic views. Whether from loch side, coastal perch, forested enclave, or ancient hilltop surrounded by vast plain and winding river, we saw the beauty and brushed the mystery of a quiet Argyll countryside. 

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Next Time: Part 4 of 4

The final post in this series follows late afternoon into night of this magical day: from the intrigues of prehistoric stone structures in Kilmartin Glen to the singular charms of our host and Cowal Peninsula’s small village, Clachan of Glendaruel; and from the perils of single-track night driving to a night view over the Kyles of Bute onto the city lights of the mainland. Plus, a surprise encounter from the day after. I hope you’ll join me for the finale.

In case you missed, or miss, the beginning . . .

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 1 of 4

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 2 of 4


Sources Consulted and Cited

All on-site images in this post were created and edited by C. L. Tangenberg.

Kilmory Oib

Ancient Monuments. “Kilmory Oib Township, cross slab and holy well, west of Loch Coille-Bharr: A Scheduled Monument in Mid Argyll, Argyll and Bute.” (n.d.). AncientMonuments.uk. https://ancientmonuments.uk/124836-kilmory-oib-township-cross-slab-and-holy-well-west-of-loch-coille-bharr-mid-argyll-ward#.W96aFBRRdND

“The Best Books on The Highland Clearances.” (2018). Five Books Expert Recommendations. https://fivebooks.com/best-books/james-hunter-on-the-highland-clearances/

The Dalriada Project. “About.” (n.d.). TheDalriadaProject.org. http://www.thedalriadaproject.org/

— — —. “Archaeology and Landscape.” (n.d.). TheDalriadaProject.org. http://www.thedalriadaproject.org/index.asp?pageid=536848

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Highland Clearances – Scottish History.” Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Highland-Clearances

Faclair Gàidhlig – Beurla / Gaelic – English Dictionary. (n.d.). http://www2.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/faclair/macfarlane/macfarlane.html

Forestry Commission Scotland. “Historic townships.” (2018). Scotland.forestry.gov.uk. https://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/activities/heritage/historic-townships

— — —. “Kilmory Oib.” (2018). Scotland.forestry.gov.uk. https://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/activities/heritage/historic-townships/kilmory-oib

The Hazel Tree. (2018 August 20). “From Arichonan to Kilmory Oib.” TheHazelTree.co.uk. [blog]. http://www.thehazeltree.co.uk/2018/08/20/from-arichonan-to-kilmory-oib/

— — —. (2015 May 26). “The stones of Kilmory Oib.” TheHazelTree.co.uk. [blog]. http://www.thehazeltree.co.uk/2015/05/26/the-stones-of-kilmory-oib/

“Highland Clearances.” (2018). UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk. https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usscotfax/history/clearances.html

Kilmartin Museum
Argyll, PA31 8RQ
Tel: 01546 510 278
museum@kilmartin.org
Scottish Charity SC022744

“Parish of North Knapdale: Details of Parish of North Knapdale.” (2018). Gazetteer for Scotland. http://www.scottish-places.info/parishes/pardetails675.html

Regan, Roderick. (2014 January). The Deserted Townships of Kilmory Oib & Arichonan and Kilmory Mill: Historic Building Surveys. Forestry Commission Scotland. Kilmartin House Museum: Argyll, Scotland. 6. http://kilmartin.org/docs/kilmoryAndArichonanSettlementsSurveyReport.pdf

— — —. (2008 June). Kilmory Oib, North Knapdale: Data Structure Report. The Dalriada Project. Kilmartin House Museum: Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland. ii, 1, 11-12. http://www.kilmartin.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Kilmory-Oib-Excavation-DSR.pdf

“Scottish Gaelic learners’ materials on the Internet.” Stuth ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig air an Eadarlìon. http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/ionnsachadh/

Tayvallich

Gaelic-English / English-Gaelic Dictionary. LearnGaelic.net. / LearnGaelic.scot. https://learngaelic.scot/dictionary/index.jsp

“Tayvallich: Overview of Tayvallich.” Argyll and Bute. (2018). Gazetteer for Scotland. www.scottish-places.info/towns/townfirst3579.html

“Tayvallich.” Content from Wikipedia.com, with links to Tayvallich articles at Wikimedia and Wikivoyage. Revolvy.com. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Tayvallich

Dunadd Fort

Historic Environment Scotland. “Kilmartin Glen: Dunadd Fort.” (2018). HistoricEnvironmentScotland.scot. https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/kilmartin-glen-dunadd-fort/

The Landscapes of Scotland, Descriptions 51-60, Scottish Natural Heritage: 52 – Jura, 53 – Knapdale and Kilmartin

Love Argyll. (2018). “Kilmartin Glen, Dunadd and the Crinan Canal.” LoveArgyll.com. https://www.loveargyll.com/kilmartin-glen-dunaad-bronze-age-monuments-ancient-seat-pictish-kings/

“The Scots.” / “Scottish Monarchs.” (2018). EnglishMonarchs.co.uk. http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/scots.html

VisitScotland. (2018). “Moine Mhòr National Nature Reserve.” VisitScotland.com. https://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/moine-mhor-national-nature-reserve-p333971

Duncan Ban MacIntyre and “Praise of Ben Dorain” / “Moladh Beinn Dobhrain”

“#7 Seat of all seats.” (2016 June 17). Mountain: a podcast about adventure [podcast]. Includes excerpts of “Praise of Ben Dorain” read in Gaelic and English. Interviewer: Christopher Sleight. Readers: Siobhan Anderson, Anna MacQuarrie.  http://mountainpodcast.com/episode/7-seat-of-all-seats/

MacIntyre, Duncan Ban. (2018). Praise of Ben Dorain. [pamphlet]. Description, Extract. Alan Riach, trans. Kettillonia: New Scottish Writing. http://kettillonia.co.uk/pamphlets/poetry/praise-of-ben-dorain-2/

MacLean, H. (n.d.). “On the Gaelic Poetry of Known and Unknown Bards, Published and Traditional.” Sacred-Texts.com. Some parts published 2011. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/pt4/pt410.htm

Meek, Donald E. (2010, 1997). “The Gaelic Literature of Argyll.” The Association for Scottish Literary Studies: Scottish Literature’s International Voice. https://asls.arts.gla.ac.uk/Laverock-Gaelic_Literature.html

“Not Burns: Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his Gaelic manifesto for land reform.” (2016 Feb 4). The National. www.thenational.scot/culture/14861208.Not_Burns______Duncan_Ban_MacIntyre_and_his_Gaelic_manifesto_for_land_reform/

“Scottish Surnames Meanings & Origins: What Does Your Scottish Last Name Mean?” Thoughtco.com. https://www.thoughtco.com/scottish-surnames-meanings-and-origins-1422406

Argyll and the Isles – General

“4. The Inner Hebrides” at “Top 10: cities and places to visit in Scotland,” The Telegraph, Travel | Destinations – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/Top-10-cities-and-places-to-visit-in-Scotland/

Argyll and Bute Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, http://www.scottish-places.info/councils/councilfirst4.html

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php

Argyll Guide at Travel Scotland – http://www.scotland.org.uk/guide/regions/argyll-holiday-guide

Argyll, Scotland at The Rough Guides – https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

“Crinan Canal.” https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/canals/crinan-canal/

Crinan Canal Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, accessed through Lochgilphead link on the site’s Argyll and Bute Overview page – http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst1169.html

Destinations and Maps – Argyll & the Isles at VisitScotland – https://www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/argyll-isles/

Detailed Road Map of Argyll and Bute, at Maphill.com – http://www.maphill.com/united-kingdom/scotland/scotland/argyll-and-bute/detailed-maps/road-map/

“Population: Where We Live,” at Argyll and Bute Council – https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/info/population-where-we-live

Scotland General

Department for Transport. “Roads Classification.” (January 2012). Guidance on Road Classification and the Primary Route Network. p. 6.  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/315783/road-classification-guidance.pdf

Scottish Government / Riaghaltas na h-Alba gov.scot. “Footnotes.” (2008 October). Rural Road Safety: Drivers and Driving. Part 19. https://www.gov.scot/Publications/2008/10/03140548/19

UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap. Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division.

Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote of An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”

OpenStreetMap – https://www.openstreetmap.org/

Google Maps – https://www.google.com/maps

“Scotland” entry page of Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias – http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/16523

Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Happy Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day! From the Academy of American Poets’ list of 15 poems in the public domain designated for Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day – April 26, 2018 (p. 71), and already one of my long-adored poems, Irish poet W. B. Yeats provides this moment to bask in the glory of great verse from 130 years ago, during National Poetry Month and ever after.


The Lake Isle of Innisfree

by W. B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

1888

Note: The lake embracing Yeats’ longed-for island is Lough Gill, which straddles Counties Sligo and Leitrim, near the west coast of northwest Ireland. Innisfree, ironically now a well-known tourist spot thanks to Yeats, lies in County Sligo, along the lake’s south side.

My favorite stanza of the three: 1
My favorite line in the stanza: 4
My favorite phrase in line 4:

“bee-loud glade”

which I first shared in the post
Five-Phrase Friday (4): Grammar Compound

What’s in your pocket?

If you liked this poem, you may also enjoy:

Other posts in my series on famous poets’ nature poetry (FPNP):

  1. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1): Sun Spots
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Book-Cover_War-and-Peace_Pevear-Volokhonsky-translation

edition I recommend for print reading


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

count-monte-cristo-cast-into-the-sea

“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)


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Five-Phrase Friday (2): Dickinson

My first post in this series last Friday showcased choice phrases in English related to politics in poetry.

This week’s poetic snippets–it won’t always be poetry, I promise!–are all Emily Dickinson, master of the original, often odd turn of phrase in succinct poems bursting with meaning. Hers has been a major influence on my own poetry writing and reading. Enjoy!

1. "to comprehend a nectar"
       - from "Success is Counted Sweetest"

2. "cool concernless no"
       - from "A Clock Stopped"

3. "my tippet -- only tulle --" 
       - from "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"

4. "surrender soundless as dots -- on a disc of snow"
       - from "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers"

5. "punctual as a star"
       - from "I Like to See It Lap the Miles"

Such examples are legion, so we’ll probably come back to Dickinson.

Happy Friday.