Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Source of book: Free download on my Kindle.

This book is one in my ongoing series of books that I read while waiting for my turn in the courtroom.

Before Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first of his Tarzan books, he primarily wrote science fiction. A Princess of Mars was serialized in 1912, and released as a complete book five years later. Recently, the book was turned into a movie, John Carter, which was a bit of a flop.

Burroughs was a largely unsuccessful middle aged man who bounced between low paying jobs in Chicago and Idaho, and never seemed to find regular wages. During a time of minimal employment, he started reading pulp magazines, and decided he could write better stories than those he was reading. A Princess of Mars, which was originally entitled Under the Moons of Mars, was his first commercial success. Ten sequels would eventually follow, but it was the Tarzan stories that would make him a superstar.

A couple of other interesting facts about Burroughs: he signed up as a war correspondent during World War Two - in his late 60s, making him one of the oldest war correspondents ever. Second, the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Tarzana (a mere 10 miles from where I was born) is named after Burroughs’ ranch of the same name, which he named after his character.

I would say that this book is definitely the cheesiest thing I have read this year. I knew that going in: it is, after all, pulp. That said, the writing is better than the average representative of that genre, which is probably why Burroughs has inspired and influenced science fiction writers for the last 100 years. There is little about the writing itself that is wince-worthy, but not much that is better than good either. In fact, this book would serve as an excellent example of the difference between competent writing and poor writing, on the one hand; and between competent writing and excellent writing on the other. It does its job, but doesn’t transcend. In this genre, that isn’t a bad thing.

The basic gist of the story is that John Carter, a human from Earth, finds himself inexplicably on Mars. He is initially captured by the savage “green martian” race, earns respect and makes a key friend. He also meets a captive member of the more civilized “red martian” race, falls in love with her, and eventually makes his escape with her. Later, he is able to more completely rescue her and win her heart. He also manages to bring some civilization to a branch of the “green martian” race.

On the plus side, Burroughs creates an imaginative world, complete with two contrasting civilizations. The Mars he envisioned: a planet in decay after a glorious past, with the survivors of a massive climate change clinging to survival has endured as a science fiction meme, and its influence can be seen in so many later stories.

His portrayal of the “green martian” civilization is interesting as well. They do not bond with each other or with their offspring, which are scientifically selected and incubated, and no one knows which children belong to which parents. (In some ways, this is a more “primitive” version of the vision in Brave New World. It is easier in this case, because Martians all lay eggs, rather than birth live young.) This lack of emotional connection leads to a violent society, focusing on war and on glory, but never on love or friendship. The change in their society occurs because one of their warriors dares to fall in love, and later bond with his daughter.

The sour note in Burroughs’ vision is the rather obvious modelling of the “green Martians” on Native American stereotypes. This is hardly unique to Burroughs, of course. Many adventure writers from his era and before tended to have colonialist and racist prejudices that were taken for granted by readers of the era. Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard come to mind. The tired old trope of “white man enlightens the savages” has been with us for centuries - as has the competing and equally tiresome “myth of the noble savage.”

I find it interesting that the movie (and some others that likewise attempt to revive old school science fiction) had difficulties at the box office. In the last few decades, the technology to bring imaginary worlds to life has been perfected. It would have been unimaginable to attempt to duplicate the beasts and Martians until recently. However, public taste has changed. A story like this would have worked in the 1950s, but could not have been made convincing given the state of special effects at the time. However, the plot seems silly to our modern tastes, and we are too jaded by CGI to really care about whether the effects match Burroughs’ written descriptions. Hollywood far too frequently forgets that a compelling story trumps star power and special effects, no matter how expensive. If the story doesn’t speak to us, it’s just explosions and adrenaline.

I should also mention the fascination that nudity held for writers like Burroughs and Haggard. Part of the mystical appeal of the “savage” was the lack of clothing. This story keeps to this tradition, although there is nothing graphic. A kiss is as sexual as it gets - unless you count an egg in an incubator at the end. However, some of the book covers are more than a bit suggestive. 

Not a bad read, but nothing particularly special, in my opinion. A good adventure tale, but not particularly deep.

One of the few non-racy covers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Source of book: I own this.

As regular followers of this blog recall, I participate in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie at This is our second year, and we are focusing on classics - an even mix of adult and children’s books. This month’s selection was chosen by me. 

What does one do if one is unjustly deprived of fortune, reputation, and indeed, one’s own name?

Well, if one is Thorin Oakenshield, rightful “King Under the Mountain,” one might set off on a quest with eleven close friends, a wizard, and a hired burglar, and die gloriously in battle.

Or, if one is Hamlet of Denmark, one might dither until it is too late, and end up as one of many dead in a Shakespearian tragedy.

Or, if one is the Count of Monte Cristo, one might swear eternal revenge, and proceed to carry it out under a false name, punishing one’s enemies in one of the greatest revenge tales ever.

But what does one do if one is a female in the Victorian era? And what happens if said female chooses option number three?

It is always interesting to reread a book many years after a first reading. I thought about this book, and determined that I must have read it around age 18 or so. Or closer to my birth than my current age. Ouch. I’m getting old.

When I read this, I had not yet begun law school, so I missed many of the delightful legal references and quotable lines. I think that this book may have been at least partially responsible for my eventual decision to enter the legal profession - and to eventually make estate planning and probate a key part of my practice.

This book was also an important milestone in my reading. I believe it was my first foray into Victorian literature beyond Charles Dickens; I would become acquainted with my favorite Victorian, Anthony Trollope soon thereafter. This was also my first acquaintance with a strong heroine in a fully adult book. (I love Anne of Green Gables - at least the first four books, but those are geared toward children and teens.)

Of all the Wilkie Collins books I have read, I still have affection for this particular book because of its ambiguous characters, its transgressive heroine, and the complex issues presented.

In my introduction to this month’s book club selection, I gave some basic biographical information about Collins, which I won’t repeat here.

Like many books of the era, it takes awhile to get into the plot itself. The first hundred pages or so set the stage of a typical upper class English family. The father has a significant inherited fortune, and there are two daughters. Norah, the eldest, is practically an old maid at 26, and is less attractive and vibrant than her younger sister, the tall and gorgeous Magdalen. It is Magdalen who chooses the third option and seeks to repossess her fortune at whatever cost necessary.

The basic plot is driven by a legal issue. The parents are not legally married, because the father entered a disastrous young marriage abroad, but was unable to obtain a divorce. The parents lived together as husband and wife, but never made it legal until the first wife died. After the legal marriage, but before they can make a new estate plan, both die under tragic circumstances. This leaves the girls disinherited and without a name. Due to previous family quarrels, the nearest relative, who inherits the fortune, casts away the girls, considering himself morally justified as the “divine retribution” for the sins of the parents. (Mankind has a history of attempting to prevent illegitimate children by brutally punishing the children. As the family lawyer, Mr. Pendril says, “I am far from defending the law of England as it affects illegitimate offspring. On the contrary, I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two abominable results in the names of morality and religion.” Modern laws have remedied this result, at least, but I could go on at length at the way that welfare laws - particularly the Medicaid rules - punish marriage still today.)

Before this tragedy, the family enjoys some typical amusements, which end up being portents of the future. First, the girls accompany their father to a concert. As an orchestral musician myself, I snickered at the description of the scene wherein the audience seemed confused about when a symphony ended. While it was common at one point to clap between movements - and individual movements were often encored immediately - by Collins’ time, it had already become gauche to fail to wait until the very end for applause.

Later, Magdalen is convinced to take part in an amatuer production of Richard Sheridan’s play, The Rivals. (While I have not read The Rivals, I did read Sheridan’s other masterwork, The School for Scandal.) The Rivals is notable for the character of Mrs. Malaprop, who uses the wrong words to comic effect. It is also notable for matrimonial schemes involving impersonations and fraud. Magdalen takes naturally to acting, and steals the show. Both this fact and the subject matter of the play will be important later in the book.

During this time, Magdalen falls in love with Frank Clare, who she has known since childhood. Frank’s father is a scandalous free thinker - and the references to his favorite philosophers escaped me when I first read this, but were amusing on the second reading. Frank is, as his father fears, irresponsible and flighty. Magdalen correctly decides that he would be best served by marrying money.

When I first read the book, I didn’t really understand why Collins bothered writing the character of Frank Clare. He is a motivating factor in Magdalen attempting to regain her fortune, of course, but he abandons her soon into her quest, and appears at the end only when he has married a far older widow for her money.

What I did not realize at the time was that Collins has cleverly turned gender expectations upside down. Frank does exactly what a proper Victorian female was expected to do. He was a gentleman without a fortune, but a handsome face. What should a girl do? Marry an older man with money, of course! But Frank is castigated for his lack of fortitude in seeking an alternate means of making a living. (As he should be: he is an irresponsible and rather ungrateful slacker. Although he also resembles the young Wilkie Collins a bit.)

However, Magdalen has exactly what Frank lacks, which is determination and fortitude. Frank takes the passive, “female” approach, while Magdalen opts for the “male” approach. Although she has fewer options, she basically opts to imitate the Count of Monte Cristo and win back what is hers by whatever means are available.

If the genders had been reversed, both Frank and Magdalen would have taken socially acceptable attitudes about their fate.

Of course, this is a Collins novel, so Magdalen’s attitude will lead her to go beyond any reasonable course of action, stooping to shocking lows and nearly destroying herself in the process. What makes her unable to embrace the “female” approach? Surely she could, with her good looks and vivacious personality, charm a handsome and wealthy suitor despite her illegitimate birth.

I found the musings of the old governess, Miss Garth, to be interesting on this point.

Does there exist in every human being, beneath that outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change?  Is the philosophy which denies this and asserts that we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper a philosophy which has failed to remark that we are not born with blank faces—­a philosophy which has never compared together two infants of a few days old, and has never observed that those infants are not born with blank tempers for mothers and nurses to fill up at will?

The “nature” versus “nurture” argument is as old as time, and both extremes have been used as justification for evil acts. Racists and eugenicists have always pointed toward nature as an excuse for the superiority of some. In contrast, the Stalinists, as I noted in my post on Iron Curtain, believed in human beings as a completely blank slate - and that by changing the nurture, one could change the nature.

Certainly, Norah and Magdalen are strong arguments for nature as a determining factor. One of the surprising things about being a parent was that I found that I had far less control than I had thought. My children have been pretty well set in personality since birth, really. I have five children with strong wills and characteristics of their own, totally different from each other.

Old Mr. Clare, curmudgeon extraordinaire, has no high opinion of his child, but neither does he think much of women.

"These are the creatures," he thought to himself, "into whose keeping men otherwise sensible give the happiness of their lives. Is there any other object in creation, I wonder, which answers its end as badly as a woman does?"

Mr. Clare underestimates Magdalen, of course. And Magdalen herself has yet to realize what she can do. Late in the book, as she finds herself falling for Captain Kirke, (did Gene Roddenberry steal the name?), she thinks, “Oh, if I could be a man, how I should like to be such a man as this!” That is, a man who is both strong and decisive, but also gentle and kind. Magdalen is capable of both, but she simply cannot be passive, which is the very thing society demands of her. 

So, does Magdalen have a defective nature? Or does is she just not cut out for the role that society has set for her? The novel ends with a conventional Victorian ideal. Norah’s approach wins in the end. By being the good girl, patiently resigned to her fate, she is eventually rescued by a wealthy man. This is ludicrously unlikely to have really occurred, as Collins is clearly aware. In fact, he sets up the scenario exactly so that it is unrealistic. Norah is the unattractive sister, and she is already age 26 when the story opens. By the time of her marriage, she would be around 28, if I am counting the months correctly. Certainly past the average age of marriage, and unlikely to have caught the eye of a dashing young gentleman.

(Side note: I shouldn’t be unfair to Norah here. While she must play the part of the Good Victorian Girl, she is more human than I remembered from my first reading. She is too good and perfect to be realistic, of course, but she has her moments of humanity. She is jealous of Magdalen’s beauty and charm. When she objects to Magdalen’s infatuation with Frank Clare, she knows that mixed with her good sense is also a certain amount of envy. She isn’t exactly an angelic Dickens female.)

Magdalen herself also succumbs at last to the societal ideal, by falling in love with a man twice her age who will rescue her. (Collins makes a big point of the age difference - at the same time as he notes Frances Clare’s marriage to an older widow. I doubt this was accidental. Although the Victorian reader would probably not find it bothersome, we moderns find this idea a bit icky - at least I do, and Collins portrays Kirke as uncomfortable as well.)

Thus, the ending of this book is ostensibly happy, but tragedy lurks below the surface. In reality, we know that it would be more likely that Norah would live out her life as a governess, and probably end it in the workhouse. Magdalen would die of her fever, and the insufferable Noel Vanstone would live to hoard his wealth for his eventual children. As in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, we escape disaster, but only by unbelievable coincidences and turns of the plot.

Not only does the plot turn on a legal issue, there is much in this book about lawyers and clients. Collins studied for the law prior to his writing career, and was actually admitted to the bar, although he never practiced.

Thus, unlike many authors (and even more television shows), he writes accurately. One of the curses of being a lawyer is that we wince whenever we watch courtroom dramas or read about legal cases. The ignorance is usually laughable, but we can’t even do that. Collins gets it right, however, and his portrayals are quite familiar.

First of all, Mr. Pendril is an ideal lawyer. He is scrupulous in his confidentiality and management of potential conflicts of interest. (The other attorney, Mr. Loscombe is likewise admirable for his professionality.)  

Collins also notes a tendency of elderly clients to fail to plan their estates, because doing so would mean contemplating their own death. In Michael Vanstone’s case, “He announced his own positive determination not to die.” Until he did, of course. I see this all the time in my own practice. Clients are afraid that if they go see an attorney, they will die. Well, they will die, but not because they saw an attorney. And then everyone else will be left with the mess.

As a final legal note, additional trouble was caused by a legal document drafted by a non-lawyer. As is common with such documents, it had the opposite effect from what was intended. Again, I see this all the time. As Mr. Loscombe puts it, this “constantly happens when uninstructed persons meddle with law...”

My friend Carrie, in her review of this book, noted that she initially groaned when Captain Wragge was introduced, but later decided he was the best character in the book. I agree. Captain Wragge has to be one the most memorable characters in literature, and it is his duel with the equally formidable Mrs. Lecount that is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. 

Magdalen and Captain Wragge. Illustration by John McLenan (from my edition of the book).

Captain Wragge calls himself a “moral agriculturist,” that is, a swindler. He separates fools from their money, by whatever non-violent means he can find. While usually motivated by pure greed, he eventually becomes fond of Magdalen while he helps her further her own schemes. However, it is once he meets the equally unscrupulous and scheming Mrs. Lecount that he finds he is fighting for pure principle. As the two of them try to gain the upper hand and stay a step ahead of the other, it becomes a “wizard’s duel” of duplicity. 

Magdalen and Mrs. Lecount also have a duel going. Lecount seems motivated both by a desire to get the money she feels she deserves, but also a self-righteous desire to see Magdalen get her just deserts as a bastard. Her low opinion of Magdalen leads her to form an “astonishment...which is akin to admiration” upon learning that Magdalen has sought only to recover her father’s fortune and stopped there. (Lecount is led by this admiration to hate Magdalen even more.)

One more thing that I had completely forgotten since the last time I read the book was that Wragge eventually goes from being a swindler of the usual sort, to a swindler of the medical sort; or, as he puts it, “medical agriculture.” Selling what we would now call “alternative medicine,” in the form of pills, he uses language which is so familiar today. “Down with the Doctors!” Nothing mainstream can be trusted, and so forth. Nothing has changed about the nature of medical swindles - or about swindles in general. Captain Wragge delivers a penetrating line as he leaves the book forever:

“Don’t think me mercenary - I merely understand the age I live in.”

And this is why all swindles have been the same in all places and times in history. No matter what is being sold, it preys on the fears and insecurities and greed of the age. This holds true for financial scams (which I often see in my practice), medical scams (which I discussed in my post on The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton), and spiritual scams (which I discussed in my post about Tolkien and witchcraft).

One final thought on a line from this book. There is a scene in which Madalen is intentionally slighted by her fellow servants (she has taken a job as a parlor maid). Despite the fact that she outranks them (which they do not know), she still feels the cut deeply.

Resist it as firmly, despise it as proudly as we may, all studied unkindness—­no matter how contemptible it may be—­has a stinging power in it which reaches to the quick.

And this is to a large degree what fuels Magdalen. Her relatives, first her uncle and then her cousin, and then Mrs. Lecount, cut her and Norah off without feeling, because of an old family grudge. The girls must be punished for a quarrel that occurred long before they were born, and had no way of curing. They all get satisfaction from being unkind to Magdalen and Norah, and that is what stings. Surely all of us have felt at one time or another, the cut of a “studied unkindness.”

Although this book is less well known that Collins’ more famous works, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, it is a gem worth seeking out and reading.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading With My Kids: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Source of book: I own a marvelous hardback edition of this book. Illustrated by Alan Lee.

Reading this book with my kids brought back lots of memories. The unpleasant one I address in a footnote. But most of them are good. I was introduced to Tolkien when I was around age ten or so, when my dad read it to me and my siblings. (He also introduced us to C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and created a PG rated version of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising on the fly.) I would read The Lord of the Rings soon thereafter on my own. Along with the Narnia books, The Arabian Nights, and the usual fairy tales, Tolkien’s works would form the backbone of my experience with fantasy and magic. 

"On the Edge of Mirkwood" - Alan Lee's illustration in The Hobbit
For the few who do not know, Alan Lee's marvelous illustrations were so good that Peter Jackson hired him (and the equally amazing John Howe to direct the art concepts for the movie versions.

The Hobbit, much more than its successors, is a children’s book. The plot is exciting - and easy to understand as a child. The characters, although memorable, are not overly deep. Except perhaps Bilbo Baggins. The issues faced by the characters are clear enough, but lack the nuance that Tolkien would develop in his later works. The humor is direct and a bit broad sometimes, and there is little that went over the heads of my kids. I had to explain a few words here and there, and a few ideas, but they kept up just fine, and laughed and shuddered at the appropriate times.

Needless to say, they loved this book. I enjoyed it too, as I have each time I have read it. (I also got to see the first of the Hobbit movies at this time, so it was interesting to compare them.)

I think that the character of Bilbo is particularly well suited to children’s literature. He is a reluctant adventurer who oscillates between excitement and fear. Often, he wishes he was back home, but cannot resist the part of him that enjoys the danger. He starts off naive and largely helpless, but gains experience and skills as he goes. He expands his universe from the tiny world of the Shire to include much that is good and noble, and much that is evil and treacherous. Thus, despite Bilbo’s nominal status as a middle-aged man, he is easy to identify with as a child. The Hobbit is thus an adventure and a coming-of-age story rolled into one.

While the plotting and descriptions are good, the characterization is a bit weak - again, to be expected in a children’s book. Bilbo is well developed, and we get a bit of a glimpse of Thorin, the tragic hero. Gollum is unforgettable, of course, and we are allowed to see inside his head, although not nearly as much as in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf has his moments in the first part of the book. But the dwarves all tend to run together.

On the other hand, Tolkien shows flashes of the his descriptive powers in the scenes with Gollum and Beorn, and in the extended episodes in Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain.

I loved reading the part of Gollum to the kids - and I think I do a pretty good job. “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”

And, of course, the poetry. Tolkien’s poems roll off the tongue much like the old ballads that they imitate. There is music there, even when no tune is given. My children so far seem to have inherited at least a bit of my poetic bent, particularly my eldest daughter, who steals my Wordsworth book from time to time. Here is the Dwarves’ song before they set out on their journey. It absolutely must be read aloud.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

My very favorite of the poems is “The Road Goes Ever On and On,” but in the version Bilbo sings at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, rather than the Hobbit version.

Finally, Tolkien captures a vision of goodness that has always spoken to all of us who never expect or intend to be heros on a large stage. Those of us who really prefer to do good in little, everyday ways. And those of us who love a good meal, friends, and a song. As Thorin puts it on his deathbed:

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Bilbo is effective precisely because he isn’t a traditional hero. He knows he can’t win in direct battle, so he must use his wits - and the fact that gold has little effect on him. He would prefer a warm bed, good food, and a few smoke rings to treasure and power.

In reading this to my kids, I was reminded of the charm that it held when I was first discovering the world of magic and imagination. I also remembered with fondness the evenings spent listening to my dad make worlds come alive for us.

Note on a book burning:

Most of us who grew up in the 1980s in conservative Christian homes remember the paranoia that swept through regarding a supposed conspiracy by toy makers and television to indoctrinate children into the occult. My mom was heavily influenced by two books in particular, The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow, which alleged a new age conspiracy that would eventually take over the world. In addition to other rather dubious claims, it considered yoga to be the gateway drug into the occult. (Frank Peretti’s novel, Piercing the Darkness would dramatize these fears.) The other book was Turmoil in the Toy Box, by author Phil Phillips. (Not to be confused with the American Idol winner of the same name. Or the Nineteenth Century lawyer and congressman. Or the Irish archbishop, or the archeologist. Also, he does not appear to be a relative of Douglas or Howard Phillips.) This book purported to find the occult in everything from He-Man (arguable - assuming your kids know advanced symbolism) to the Care Bears and Mighty Mouse. (really?) The biggest bogeyman, however, was Dungeons and Dragons. I remember being paranoid about that. Not that I actually knew anyone geeky enough to play it at the time - that happened in Law School, and I discovered that most of what was said about it wasn’t actually true. Phillips would also write a book about the satanic dangers of Halloween. (This idea has had a huge influence on conservative Christianity.) Later, he would write books specifically warning of the dangers of Power Rangers and Barney. I should also mention televangelist, sensationalist, and “exorcist” Bob Larson here as well, who saw demons everywhere, and helped stir up the panic about toys and games. And about a satanist conspiracy.  (He also was part of the “rock music is satanic” movement of the 1980s - although he has since changed his mind. I imagine it was easier to sell the idea of hidden messages in Black Sabbath and Stryper than in Train and Brandon Heath.  I talked about the real origins of that movement here.) What was it about the 1980s and satanist conspiracy theories anyway? It’s not like any of us actually knew any real satanists. Did more than a few dozen exist? Our county (and others) had those now-reversed “molestation ring”  cases where kids were led psychological coercion to allege ludicrous satanic ritual abuse. Innocent people spent a decade or more in prison as a result of this panic...

Since I was never into modern television (except Mighty Mouse, apparently), and greatly preferred Legos and books to everything else toy related, this never really affected me in a negative way, at least personally. But I am sure I said some unkind things to kids who did play with these toys. To my knowledge, none of them ever got into the occult.

I would later find out that this paranoia extended far beyond cheesy kids’ television and stuffed bears with hearts on their tummies. For Bill Gothard, many objects contained malevolent powers - and the worst offender was Cabbage Patch dolls. They caused infertility. (I am not making this up.) And so, a purge of the household was necessary. (It occurs to me, after having had five children in seven years, that it would be cheaper and far less painful to put a cabbage patch doll under the bed than to get a vasectomy. Except that birth control was considered evil as well.)

This idea of destroying “evil” objects extended to books too. Books with magic in them were the equivalent of Simon the Sorcerer’s magic scrolls. So, at the peak of my family’s involvement, we burned our Tolkien books. I did not agree with this decision, and didn’t watch the whole thing. Since they were cheap paperbacks had seen better days, it wasn’t a huge loss.  I can tell you that books don’t burn very well by themselves, unless you take them apart page by page. Otherwise, they are pretty much the same as a log. For some reason, we spared our C. S. Lewis - although many others considered these occult as well.

Fortunately, this insanity passed, and we all went to see the Lord of the Rings movies in the theaters when the came out. I would say that, since that time, the more mainstream Christian groups have moved on to new issues (and new panics), while the most conservative elements - particularly in the home schooling movement - have broadened the forbidden list to include pretty much everything in culture more modern than the Victorian Era. And it even can get more restrictive than that.

My wife’s family never destroyed any books. (My wife didn’t read Tolkien until after I introduced her to him, although the rest of her family read them before the movies came out.) The group they were in, however, was extremely restrictive on reading material. (Many within Gothard’s group are this way as well, but not all.) For some of them, the only acceptable reading materials were the Bible and missionary biographies. Fiction was out, because it was “telling lies.” Because, you know, the story didn’t really happen. Particularly suspicious were magic and talking animals. Not only did it not happen, but it couldn’t happen in our world. Even those that allowed fiction tended to seek out books like Elsie Dinsmore, which portrayed their view of appropriate child behavior. Certainly no book could be allowed that had a child tell a lie or disobey! And the illustrations were not exempt from this paranoia either. If a girl’s skirt was too short (you know, like the actual clothes little girls wore when the book was written), they drew a longer one. Can’t have those knees showing.

It still amazes me that there are people - plenty of them - that cannot fathom that fantasy and magic, and indeed imagination - are vitally important a child’s development. And to an adult’s mental health. They really cannot believe that children can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The use of the impossible, the fantastic, and the unfamiliar to illuminate the possible, the everyday is a crucial feature of imagination. We can see the issues more clearly when we remove the trappings of our particular situations. We don’t really think that a wizard and dwarves will invade our house and sweep us along on an adventure. We know that we will probably never have to fight off car-sized spiders. We won’t be literally looking for vulnerable spots on a real dragon. But that doesn’t mean that we learn nothing from The Hobbit. As G. K. Chesterton put it in Tremendous Trifles:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

So for me, this era is a reminder of the power of cultural panic, which we still see today about food and medicine in addition to an ever-changing array of moral and spiritual “conspiracies.” It’s comforting to direct our natural fears of somehow ruining our children (which are difficult to raise!) into the avoidance of an outside malevolent influence. It’s easier and more comforting to believe that evil comes primarily (or entirely) from outside of ourselves. I doubt that anyone missed out on much by being denied the latest disposable plastic action figure, but the general idea of isolation from anything “outside” is damaging. When a child discovers that yoga is not, in fact, a gateway drug to the occult, and that the toys of his or her childhood were the result of a marketing conspiracy, rather than a demonic one, it does tend to lead to skepticism of other claims. And when good books are burned because of irrational fear, something in the soul dies. Fear becomes a barrier to the enjoyment of a great story, and future opportunities to learn and explore are circumscribed by the terror of contamination. And so, one retreats further and further into the bubble of “likemindedness” until everything in life becomes black and white - and very little of the white.