“The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth — not a different truth: the same truth — only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.” Shelby Foote, author and historian
“It has been said that if the protagonists of Hamlet and Othello were reversed, there would have been no tragedy: Hamlet would have seen through Iago in no time and Othello would not have hesitated to kill King Claudius.” – Barbara Tuchman, from The March of Folly, p. 231
Peter Jackson, known for his movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, promises audiences they’ll experience the Great War as they’ve never seen it before in his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old.
The teaser reveals an astounding technical achievement. Jackson has restored, colorized, and repaired hundreds of original films from World War One to show audiences what it was like to fight and die in that terrible conflict. By doing so, he’s made hundred-year-old images seem real and poignant to modern audiences.
I’ve searched numerous articles to see Peter Jackson’s thoughts on the making of this film, and what drove him to do it. I suspect, though I can’t confirm, that Jackson’s latest project grew from his research into the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the shocking carnage at the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien served as Battalion Signaling Officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers, that tormented and inspired the young scholar to capture in fiction the horror — and hope — he’d learned on the battlefield.
Tolkien’s way of making sense of what he’d gone through in WWI was to craft a tale that warned of the dehumanizing effect of technology while celebrating the courage and decency of ordinary people. That, I think, is the true power of fantastic fiction, which opens us to a realm of rediscovered and reimagined possibilities thought lost but still within our grasp.
Hurricane Florence has left us dazed, confused, and waterlogged. As bad as it was, the shifting forecasts and endless revisions of the storm’s projected path only made it worse. Florence was supposed to march through North Carolina and douse Raleigh, instead, it hit Wilmington and slowly churned its way through South Carolina, spinning off tornados and flooding low-lying areas. Here in Charlotte, trees are down and many roads and yards are under water. Now comes the clean up. Yuck.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the heady days of the Enlightenment, learned individuals imagined they could predict and control both man and nature through science. French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace assured fellow scientists they could one day predict the exact movements of tides and storms — in fact, he went so far as to claim that the movement of every atom could be calculated.
Now we have both private industry and government departments armed with Cray supercomputers that can guzzle meteorological data from all over the world, digest it faster than Laplace ever dreamed, and spit out detailed predictions.
Problem is, those details are often wrong — just as we’ve just seen with Hurricane Florence.
A long, long time ago, I worked in the insurance industry as an analyst and project manager. Pretty handy with a computer, a long-time weather buff, and an instructor of statistics, I served on the North Carolina Rate Bureau’s Property Committee a number of years, where I studied long-range weather forecasts. Our mandate was to recommend and justify future rate proposals based on expected weather patterns. To make a long story short, I learned quickly that despite all our efforts, we were only guessing at future trends.
More famous experts have performed as badly, even worse. Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” chronicles the greatest miscalculations in history, including America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was a whiz kid with a degree from Harvard Business School. Here’s how Tuchman summarizes McNamara’s mindset:
“Precise and positive, with slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, McNamara was a specialist of management through ‘statistical control’ … his genius for statistics left little respect for human variables and no room for the unpredictable.” (p. 285)
The military establishment Secretary McNamara guided was all too receptive. The commander of the US forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, the years of escalation and certain victory, was William C. Westmoreland. Though later denounced as the “most disastrous American general since Custer,” Westmoreland was not ill-prepared for the job. He’d graduated West Point with the highest rank possible, first captain, and was America’s youngest major general ever. And he’d studied statistics at — Harvard Business School. In fact, his reliance on “kill statistics” overstated American success in Vietnam, setting up both the American military and public for a nasty confrontation with reality.
If US leaders had listened to historians rather than statisticians, and recognized that Vietnam’s ancient animosity against China precluded Communist Chinese control of an independent Vietnam, they could have avoided a tragedy. Instead, they relied on the dehumanizing scientism of B.F. Skinner to “stress” the Vietnamese into acting “rationally.” Despite the odds, first against the French, and then the Americans, the Vietnamese prevailed.
Sadly, those who would reduce people to a logical, globalized, and disconnected existence aren’t going to let a few tragic failures stop them. But no matter what they say or do, numbers alone cannot define humanity or nature. Humans stubbornly refuse to surrender purpose, identity, and emotional fulfillment. And we are not without weapons. Literature is a wild, throaty howl of defiance to those who would reduce us to formulas or pawns in their ideological schemes. And that’s a fact we can be sure of.
Born in the harsh world of East Africa 1.8 million years ago, where hunger, death, and predation are a normal part of daily life, Lucy and her band of early humans struggle to survive. It is a time in history when they are relentlessly annihilated by predators, nature, their own people, and the next iteration of man. To make it worse, Lucy’s band hates her. She is their leader’s new mate and they don’t understand her odd actions, don’t like her strange looks, and don’t trust her past. To survive, she cobbles together an unusual alliance with an orphaned child, a beleaguered protodog who’s lost his pack, and a man who was supposed to be dead.
And here’s what Kirkus Reviews has to say: “Murray weaves a taut, compelling narrative, building her story on timeless human concerns of survival, acceptance, and fear of the unknown.”
It’s a great idea: an historical novel about Lucy, everyone’s great-to-the-Nth-power grandmother. I loved Twenty-Four Days, and plan to bump this to the top of my reading pile.
My father, Clayton Tuggle, passed away this Saturday. He was the most decent man I ever met. My brother and I, who knew nothing of war except for what we saw on TV and in the movies, never could figure out why he wouldn’t talk about his experiences in the Navy in WWII. 50 years after he hung up his sailor’s cap, he went on a local talk radio station and took questions for two hours. Then he gave me and my brother a handwritten account of the Battle of Okinawa, which I transcripted. G.P. Cox of Pacific Paratrooper kindly posted my Dad’s story on his excellent WWII blog. Please read this, and remember our WWII veterans. Thank you.
I loved this tribute from playwright John Ostrander:
What makes Jack Kirby the King? For me, it’s this.
Imagination – The word “prodigious” comes to mind. So many concepts, so many characters, bear his mark. So many styles of stories. From the spires of Asgard to the weird distortions of the Negative Zone to the brutal cityscapes of Apokolips, to Ego the Living Planet, no one could top his visuals.
Storytelling – His figures leaped off the page. The panels couldn’t contain the events on them. Even standing still, they vibrated with potential power. There was energy to burn on his pages. You felt them as much as you read them. You couldn’t read the story fast enough and when one issue was done you wanted the next one right now.
Artistry – Okay, his anatomy was not always perfect. And every woman’s face looked the same. He was still one of the best ARTISTS that ever drew a comic because comics are about storytelling and no one beat Kirby as a storyteller.
The featured image is a scan from my copy of The Mighty Thor # 159, from December, 1968. It’s a perfect example of the barely contained power that animates all of Jack Kirby’s illustrations. You can feel the tension in this scene: Thor, despite his earth-shattering might, approaches his father Odin with the most profound respect — and more than a little bit of fear. As well he should: Odin could rage and roar like no other monarch in comicdom.
I have no doubt Marvel Comics in its Silver Age strongly influenced me. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby definitely expanded my vocabulary, often forcing me to set my latest comic down to riffle through the dictionary to discover the meaning of what I’d just read. And the high quality of the stories and characterization I encountered in those comics, as well as the heroic subject matter, whetted my appetite in grade and high school for Beowulf, Shakespeare, science, and history.
Side note on the scanned picture of Thor: At the tender age of 31, barely a year after getting married, I sold my comic book collection. My wife and I needed money for a down payment on a house, and the stern lesson of 1 Corinthians recited at our wedding still reverberated in my ear: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
So it was time to let go of Spiderman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. But I held on to three of my favorite issues of Thor. I’ve found the best way to move forward is to hold on to a few pieces of a beloved past.