Alternate History: World War II

January 30 parade

A grim 80th anniversary approaches: on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. The photo above shows a celebratory torchlight parade in Berlin on the evening of Jan. 30. President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler chancellor, looks out the window.

It was the beginning of an unimaginable inferno. With the Enabling Act in March 1933, the German Parliament was largely excluded from power for the next 4 years and so Hitler went from chancellor to dictator. The numbers of men in the German army immediately began to increase, and in only two years the army had trebled in size. (It would increase 7-fold by the time war came.) The execution squads began their work in 1934 with the Night of the Long Knives. And on it went, the Third Reich, gathering power and momentum, until it seemed unstoppable.

I’ve been reading a good bit of history of World War II for the past year. I’m not sure what started me down the path, if it was anything specific at all. I think it is simply the complexity of it, the many different strands of events and people and beliefs and the colossal effort and sacrifice that went into it.

My father was in the Navy during the war; he served on an escort carrier, the USS Long Island, a converted cargo ship. He describes, somewhat sparely, the ship’s war duties as “We carried airplanes to Pearl Harbor, and we carried wrecked planes back to San Diego.” That tells a good bit — about the grueling nature of the Pacific war, and the sad loss of life. My father was fortunate enough to return home; one of his cousins, however, also in the Navy, was killed in a kamikaze attack.

For my job at a professional society, I occasionally have to write an obituary of a member who’s passed away. A year or so ago, when I called a widow to find out a little something about her husband, I found out that he had been born in Central Europe, had been 15 years old when the Nazis overran his country, had been taken from his family and placed in a labor camp, had escaped and was eventually helped by the Underground to cross occupied Europe and France to eventually reach England over a year later. He also met his wife-to-be at that time. He enlisted in the armed forces there and fought the Axis until the end of the war in Europe. Then he went to college and became an insurance actuary and came to the US. It was, to put it mildly, the most interesting obituary I’ve ever written. It’s a good life, when you’ve counted for something at the end.

The reach of WWII was vast. It was one of the great “hinges of fate” of the world (to borrow Churchill’s phrase). In the subgenre of alternate history, it is one of the two most-written-about periods of history, because so much was hanging in the balance. (The other time period much used for alternate history fiction is the American Civil War.)

So for February and maybe longer, I’m going to explore the alternate history stories that deal with World War II. Up to now, I haven’t read much of this subgenre. I read Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over 30 years ago, but I’ll have to re-read it.

The question is, Will these works really have anything to say about the war; will they show the futures that could have been, and illuminate what did happen? Or will there just be easy Nazi villains, so convenient to play against heroes? Will there just be a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing? Because there really doesn’t seem to be any point in alternate history, unless to have characters grapple with serious political and moral issues.

Thoughts on The Hobbit (the movie)

Carpal tunnel syndrome has kept me off the computer except for what I had to do for work, so I am late in continuing with my “Hobbit”-related posts. Since the movie has been out for over a month now, I will dispense with issuing alerts against spoilers and will assume that you’ve either seen the movie, or don’t mind spoilers, or you won’t continue reading this particular post.

So, to get a few things out of the way:

  • It was 20-30 minutes too long. Did the fights have to be so extravagant?
  • It is for teens and older (much violence, and its length tries the patience even for oldsters like me).
  • Martin Freeman was terrific. He was a perfect Bilbo.
  • How does a round door work, exactly? Do hobbits have a special magic to make a single hinge hold a door without needing daily adjustment?
  • I had a sense that I’d seen far too many wargs in the space of 3 hours.

I think Jackson did not do unforgivable violence to the heart of the story, for which I am grateful. I will particularly single out for praise the scene where Bilbo must act to escape the goblin mines, when the option to kill Gollum, who stands between him and the passage out, seems to be the only possibility. The camera stays for a long moment on Gollum as he looks, unseeing, toward the invisible Bilbo, and the moment is prolonged enough to let Bilbo, and us, see the pitiful side of Gollum, and so allows us to see and feel the pity that motivates Bilbo to take a chance on leaping over Gollum. That was well done. Amid all the crash, smack, ow, boom, erg, oof, argh, and whatnot of the action, I’m not sure I would have noticed if that critical incident hadn’t been done thoughtfully, but I’m certainly glad that it was.

It partly makes up for the over-the-top absurdity of the dwarves’ battle to escape the goblins.

The filling-in of the Necromancer story and the White Council with Saruman the White wasn’t objectionable, and the expansion of the role of Radagast was kind of fun. It made me regret that the movie wasn’t suitable for young folks because they would have loved the hedgehogs and the hare sled in Radagast’s scenes. Kids would have loved the dish-throwing at Bag End, too.

The movie could have been suitable for kids and adults both, if it had been less enamored of the fighting. Really, where’s the sense of building up to something? There is a battle in the climax, when there’s a dragon hoard to fight over, not to mention Smaug’s attack on Lake Town, and is Jackson going to make that battle last an hour and deaden our senses with an assault even greater than in Hobbit part one? And of course there will also be the wizards’ assault on the Necromancer at some point, so there will be a tremendous amount of hurly-burly for the viewer to get through. But I suppose this is what Jackson specializes in now; in the LOTR he acquired his audience of those who come for the battles, and he is loath to change direction now. Perhaps in a future installment he’ll throw Radagast’s rabbits into the fray and we’ll get to see bunnies slaughtered by Sauron. Now that’s entertainment.

The Hobbit’s ancient beginning

As I was setting forth into rereading Chapter 1 of The Hobbit, I started getting a sense of … remindedness. What was this chapter reminding me of?

The first sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” is very direct and brisk in getting to the story, and right after that you expect should follow something like “…named Bilbo Baggins. One fine morning as he stood by his door…” etc. But that is not what happens at all. We are told what the hole looks like and what a hobbit is, and that “the Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind,” and who his parents were, and even a bit about his Took ancestors. And all this preliminary background is finished off by a very firm placing of the story in a legendary past:

By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous…

Aha! Now I know what it reminds me of: the opening of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,”  which first looks far into the past — at the momentous event that caused a chain of consequences leading forward in time to the (still in the legendary past) event of the story that will be told. That is, it begins with the siege and assault of Troy and its smoking ruins, leading to Aeneas’s founding of Rome and the spread of its civilization until Felix Brutus, banished great-grandson of Aeneas, becomes the founder of Britain. All of this has nothing materially to do with the story of King Arthur’s court that the poet goes on to tell. It runs counter to common storyteller advice to start the story as quickly as possible.

Why begin the story of Sir Gawain with the fall of Troy? And why put in all that beside-the-point stuff about Belladonna Took and the Old Took and the gossip about a long-ago Took ancestor taking a fairy wife? (I have a German language audiobook of The Hobbit that, in fact, leaves all that out.)

Well, it makes the story being told part of a larger story: in the case of “Sir Gawain,” part of the story of England, and in the case of The Hobbit, part of the larger world. That bit about young Tooks running off and having adventures is the beginning of that idea, and throughout the whole story of The Hobbit Bilbo is discovering the greater world, which is not yet called Middle Earth. This is a way of proceeding that was evidently instinctive to Tolkien, as can be seen clearly when we get the entire Lord of the Rings story which itself is just one part of a much larger story.

This placing of a story in a larger context also gives Bilbo and Sir Gawain heroic predecessors and heroic standards to measure themselves by. Throughout the novel Bilbo repeatedly either brings up the Old Took, or the narrator does.

At the end of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the narrator comes around again to where he began:

Thus in Arthurus day this aunter bitidde,
The Brutus bokes therof beres wytteness.
Sythen Brutus the bolde burne bowed hider fyrst
After the segge and the asaute was sesed at Troye

[Thus in Arthur’s day this adventure happened
Brutus’s book thereof bears witness
Since Brutus, the bold man, came hither first
After the siege and assault was ceased at Troy]

So after giving the big picture, then narrowing in to focus on one event (Gawain’s “There and Back Again” quest, like Bilbo’s), at the end the view expands again to the larger context. It is somewhat reminiscent of the conclusion of The Hobbit, when Gandalf reminds Bilbo of the larger context of his adventure, saying “…you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

The Hobbit (the movie) U.S. release day approaches…

Everyone who cares, and a lot of people who don’t, are aware that the Peter Jackson movie of ‘The Hobbit’ is about to be released in the US. It’s a week away, and I’ll probably be in the theater to see it on Friday unless something unexpected prevents me. I have misgivings, though.

This is what I expect:

The casting will be terrific, good actors all around. (Not a hard prediction, since we have already seen Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving; plus the trailers have shown us Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and the actors playing the various dwarves. I love ’em all.

The location will be great. Stupendous New Zealand landscapes. Ah.

The sets will be fantastic. The props and costumes will be convincing and beautifully detailed.

But the script. O, I fear, I know, something will be terribly amiss.

I don’t know what that will be. But what I learned from Jackson’s LOTR movies was that he will sacrifice character, even sense, to add such interpolations as Aragorn falling off a cliff into a river and being rescued by his horse (Why? Can’t Jackson see the difference between drama and blithering silliness?) And there is tragic, proud Denethor, who decides to kill his son and commit suicide rather than fight to the end — one of the most dramatic and suspenseful situations in the Battle of Minas Tirith. For some reason Jackson thought it was improved by simply making Denethor a raving madman. Cheapened again.

I have no objection per se to making changes when adapting a novel to a movie. All I expect is that the changes make sense. It’s almost like Jackson doesn’t understand what he’s read — and I know he’s said in interviews that he has read the books, unlike many Hollywood producers and directors who will hire people to do the reading for them.

[Personal gripe of lesser importance: it’s too late now, but why don’t the actors know how to pronounce “Gandalf” consistently?]

Anyhow, in honor and anticipation of “The Hobbit” release, I will reread The Hobbit: the book, and reflect on the story as I experience it again, starting tomorrow.

Honeysuckle Cottage (P. G. Wodehouse, 1925)

What? P. G. Wodehouse… ghost story? Are we maybe in an alternate universe? Should we allow… [lowered voice] comedy?

Think of it as something light and refreshing after the challenging perplexities of Henry James. Purists will not allow “Honeysuckle Cottage” into the genre, but … OK, I will.

We begin with Mr. Mulliner, a regular and well-known raconteur at the Angler’s Rest, who has a limitless supply of relatives about whom he can tell a tale, and this evening’s tale is about his cousin, Mr. James Rodman, a writer of sensational mystery stories, i.e., “revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without a gash in the throat.” James learns that an aunt, Leila J. Pinckney, writer of romances, has passed away and left him her home, Honeysuckle Cottage. Nice! No sooner has James moved in, though, than a strange influence seems to be exerting itself, causing him to insert romantic, sentimental heroines into his work-in-progress. Where he intends to have the hero’s door open and a dying man fall in, gasping “Tell Scotland Yard that the blue beetle is –” and then expiring, he writes

Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakeable — a soft scratching at the outer panel … he tiptoed to the door; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.
On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld … then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof, [she] shook a dainty forefinger at him.

It is, of course, the spirit of the dead aunt, haunting the cottage and spreading her baleful, romantic influence over her nephew, slowly driving him, not insane, a la “Turn of the Screw,” but to an extreme of soupiness. Will James escape the creeping sentimentality — or will he be inexorably drawn into an engagement with the sweet, wholesome girl who shows up on his doorstep?

You can find this story in Meet Mr. Mulliner, and probably a number of other collections. And if you haven’t read anything by Wodehouse, you should not stop at that book, but go on and read Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), Code of the Woosters (1938), Joy in the Morning (1946), and The Mating Season (1949) — and as many others as you can get your hands on. Enjoy!

P.S., for an excellent introductory essay, see “What Ho! My Hero, P. G. Wodehouse” by Stephen Fry, here.

The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898)

Everybody’s heard of it. The title is intriguing and mysterious and memorable. But, oh… Henry James… I read “The Turn of the Screw” in college and was surprised and disappointed by the dullness of it. Then, after I read James’ The American, I swore never to touch anything by him again.

Fast forward some decades: OK, well, I thought, maybe time had effected a change and I should try “Turn of the Screw” again. I heard somewhere that no young person could properly appreciate James. You had to be seasoned by age to really get his work. Um-hm.

On to the story, then. A young woman (we never learn her name) tells us how she was hired to be governess of two orphans who live at their uncle’s country estate, under the care of some servants, while he lives permanently in London. Her first-person narrative describes how she arrives and takes charge of young Flora and Miles, giving clues, at the same time, that all is not right with her, in terms of mental stability. Her attraction to the children is intense: Miles is “incredibly beautiful,” he has a “positive fragrance of purity,” he is “something divine,” and she feels a “passion of tenderness” for him, etc.

She walks the grounds of the estate in the evening, fantasizing about meeting a handsome man and then she sees an unfamiliar figure standing on the battlements of the house’s tower, staring at her with disturbing intensity. She immediately wonders if the house has a mystery of Udolfo or a hidden relative kept in confinement.

In a passage that calls to mind “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator says:

There were hours, from day to day — or at least there were moments, snatched even from clear duties — when I had to shut myself up to think. It was not so much yet that I was more nervous than I could bear to be as that I was remarkably afraid of becoming so; for the truth I had now to turn over was, simply and clearly, the truth that I could arrive at no account whatever of the visitor with whom I had been so inexplicably and yet, as it seemed to me, so intimately concerned. It took little time to see that I could sound without forms of inquiry and without exciting remark any domestic complication. The shock I had suffered must have sharpened all my senses; I felt sure, at the end of three days and as the result of mere closer attention, that I had not been practiced upon by the servants…

Her concern about being nervous and her belief in her senses being sharpened are surely a deliberate echo of the mad narrator in Poe’s story; she also invites comparison to Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland — if Catherine were prone to actually making herself see and believe in characters from her beloved gothic horror novels.

She sees the man again, and becomes convinced that he is a ghost, and then she sees another ghost, becomes convinced the children see the ghosts but pretend not to, and constructs a horrific but only vaguely-hinted-at plot of the ghosts to take possession of the children. It is a complex narrative and cannot be quickly summarized while doing full justice to the chain of events.

The story has a reputation for being ambiguous — that is, creating doubt whether the narrator is mad or the ghosts actually exist. But it seems to me that James carefully gives us all the evidence that we need in order to know that the narrator is deluded. The cleverness of the story is in letting the narrator herself tell us, unintentionally, that she is out of touch with reality.

Some readers find this story psychologically thrilling. I still find it to be trying, and somewhat of a bore. Give it a shot, and see what your reaction is. It’s subtle; if you prefer to imagine your horrors into a story, this is for you.

What is a ghost story?

The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus

The angry ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus

Looking for a definition, I found in the Oxford Companion to English Literature that a ghost story is a narrative that has as its central theme “the power of the dead to return and confront the living.”

This definition captures the heart of this kind of story, but it leaves out such supernatural creatures as demons, witches, and other spectral creatures that aren’t the returned dead. The Oxford entry goes on to cite “Green Tea” as an example of a ghost story, and yet it must be pointed out that the demonic monkey is certainly not a ghost. I would group stories of ghosts and demons together as “ghost stories.”

Should Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” be considered a ghost story? I was inclined not to, and then my husband pointed out that it is all about the dead returning to confront the living — albeit in a psychological sense. So yes, it can be encompassed in the genre, I think. (Who would want to exclude such a terrific story, if you didn’t have to?)

Guilt is one of the powerful drivers of a ghost story. The ghost may return to avenge its murder (as “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Stevenson’s “The Grave Robber”, Le Fanu’s “The Familiar” and many others). Or the ghost may be the guilty party, tormented and driven to reveal its crime (Le Fanu’s “Madame Crowl’s Ghost”), or simply tied to the scene of its crime as punishment. Sometimes the ghost, who when alive was guilty of terrible crimes, continues to commit his evil deeds as a malevolent spirit (“The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker; “Count Magnus” by M. R. James).

There are ghosts (fearsome but not malevolent) who warn of impending death (Le Fanu’s “The White Cat of Drumgunniol”; Dickens’ “The Signalman”) — similar to a banshee, although in the Le Fanu story, at least, the spirit cat differs from a banshee in that it began to haunt the family as the result of a deadly crime and continues to haunt the innocent descendents of the perpetrator.

More discussion of what makes a ghost story, and what the ghost story implies, to follow.