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J. R. R. Tolkien
(The realm of Faërie is no frivolity, but a place of profound enchantment, offering glimpses into deep mysteries and addressing fundamental human desires.)
“Lies, though breathed through silver”. It was September 1931. Little could J. R. R. Tolkien have guessed that this insult of myth, from the mouth of his hard-headed friend C. S. Lewis, would spur him to a rebuttal that would blossom into the most sustained and thoughtful argument for the value of fiction in the history of literature. And, while we’re at it, little could Lewis have guessed that Tollers’ argument, as they walked in a park behind Magdalen College, Oxford, would plant a mustard seed that would eventually transform Lewis into a myth-maker himself, not to mention the most celebrated writer on God (that myth of all myths) in the twentieth century. What was that argument? What path could possibly carry a wayfarer from the valley where myths are childish propaganda, to the hilltop where they are powerful elicitors of fleeting joy and hint at truths beyond our comprehension?
(Disaster ensues when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)
The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.
(with Rustichello of Pisa)
(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).
Marco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France.
We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards. He dictated– apparently from memory– his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa. No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious. I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked. I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch. It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.