News that stays news

Spillane

The best writing blogs, compiled by mickey

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Confessions of a Readaholic: My Outgrowing Obsession for Doctor Who
Oscar Hokeah: Is the Modern Publishing Industry in Direct Conflict with Writer/Artists?
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A Terrible Beauty

Weapons hold a special place in all cultures. The tradition of a special bond between the weapon and its owner is one we see often in history, folklore, and literature. Think of the samurai’s katana, Thor’s Mjölnir, Arthur’s Excalibur, Bilbo’s Sting, and Davy Crockett’s Ol’ Betsy.

This morning, I attended a presentation at the Charlotte Museum of History on the Mecklenburg Longrifle, a fine and highly sought-after weapon produced here in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Michael Briggs, the author of The Longrifle Makers of Guilford County and The Longrifle Makers of Forsyth County & Davidson County, displayed some breathtaking pieces from his personal collection, and generously identified and discussed longrifles that audience members brought in.

Audience
Author Michael Briggs examining a longrifle.

North Carolina had nine different schools, or regional styles, of longrifles. Those distinctive styles were the outgrowth of the culture of the settler population. The predominant Scots-Irish and German population in the North Carolina Piedmont and Appalachian Mountains brought their woodworking, silversmithing, and metalworking traditions together to craft elegant and vital weapons for life on the frontier.

Longrifles

Click to enlarge

What most fascinated me was the extraordinary detail and ornamentation gunsmiths imparted to their creations. These longrifles are truly works of art. When the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts featured a longrifle exhibit, the magazine ad announcing it featured a photo showing the gorgeous detail of an engraved silver stock with the motto “I’ve stopped people in their tracks without firing a shot.”

Pistol

This pistol was the work of Zenas Alexander, who was also a noted silversmith working in Charlotte in the early 19th century. When Michael Briggs showed a photo of a silver pitcher by Alexander, someone behind me muttered, “Guns and tea sets. What a helluva combination!”

But I think there’s no disparity at all in Alexander’s dual careers. The longrifle was more than just a tool. It was necessary for hunting and self-defense. With it, a settler possessed security and independence. For the settlers on the North Carolina frontier, the longrifle was life itself. So the ornamentation wasn’t just an afterthought; it personalized the weapon. As the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts said, these guns were stunning works of art. And yes, they were weapons, too. Something that essential to life possesses a beauty of its own, and I think the extra effort Zenas Alexander and the other gunsmiths spent engraving their creations was their way of expressing the natural awe that the future owners of their creations would feel.

As John O’Donohue once said, “The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves.” I’d add that beauty can be found where we often least expect it — and that makes it all the more compelling.

Quote of the day

“Books don’t just compete against books.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on the phenomenal growth of ebooks.

Bezos is right – books don’t just compete with other books.

e.e. cummings once noted that his poems not only had to compete with other fine poems, but also with “flowers and balloons and mud puddles and train rides,” and anything else that appeals to our senses and imagination. That little reminder should spur writers to make every word count.

Quote of the day

Flaubert

“What a delicious thing writing is — not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion.” – Gustave Flaubert

Writing is acting. It is the channeling of imagined personalities so we can transpose them into words. It’s an endeavor that requires many skills, which is why it can be so frustrating when we can’t pull it off the way we want, and why it is so bone-deep gratifying when it all comes together.

What Did Tolkien Think of Fantasy Fiction?

TolkienSignature

Nicola Alter has a great piece on J.R.R. Tolkien at Thoughts on Fantasy. Anyone who admires Tolkien will enjoy this review of his special genius and unique contribution to fantasy fiction. As Alter says:

People often forget that Tolkien was also a linguist and a poet and a university professor. He invented new languages. He wrote literary essays, many of which discuss his work. He was a friend of fellow fantasy author C.S. Lewis, and the two were members of the same informal literary discussion group.

Tolkien was not only writing amazing fantasy novels, he was also reflecting on his own work and on the fantasy genre itself. One of Tolkien’s famous essays is called On Fairy Stories (Tolkien called “fairy stories” what we would today call “fantasy”) – a speech he wrote and then later published.

I read On Fairy Stories several years ago for an essay I was writing, and recently revisited it to answer a related question on Quora. When I did, I was once again astounded by the eloquence and intelligence of this man. It struck me that in its fledging years, as the fantasy genre was growing in popularity, it couldn’t have had a better champion. He was not just someone writing brilliant fantasy, but also someone analysing it, promoting it, and defending it against critics who dismissed it as useless or escapist or literature fit only for children.

I’m presently reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s commentary on his translation of Beowulf. Not only does Tolkien deliver an energetic and loving rendition of this classic adventure, he also shares his insights into the rich and vigorous culture that produced it. As the poet W.H. Auden once declared, encountering Tolkien’s long-sighted and perceptive observations on Beowulf is an “unforgettable experience.”

And it still is.

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