Melville’s "Mosses" – from an Old Mast

Aivazovsky - Strong Wind

The actual title of the book is Billy Budd and Other Stories, published by Penguin Classics.  However, there is such a similarity in the writing, I was reminded of the title of a Hawthorne collection, Mosses from an Old Manse.  Since Hawthorne was the dedicatee of Moby-Dick and also referenced by name in one of these stories, I’m sure Herman Melville would take the comparison as a compliment!

Overall, I give the book 4 stars, but it’s a mixed bag, so I’ll review each story on its own:

Bartleby, the Scrivener

I really loved this story.  It’s probably the closest thing to Kafkaesque, pre-Kafka, that I’ve read.  Bartleby is an enigmatic scrivener (copier – think Nemo from Bleak House), and it’s hard to say if he’s the hero or the antagonist, but he is certainly the mystery.  I’m still not sure what to make of it, but it’s one of those stories that is very good at painting atmosphere and the impression of things.

The Piazza

Another kind of mystery/word-painting…it seemed like this takes place in the Green Mountains in Vermont, though I’m not sure.  It’s about how the grass seems greener on the other side, but becomes less so the closer you see it.

The Encantadas

A whole set of sketches about the Galapagos Islands!  In the middle of reading this, I rewatched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, so some of the places they visit finally “clicked” for me as I read about them in these stories.  Some of the tales are purely descriptive, others are anecdotes, including “Sketch Eight: Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow,” about a woman who had “A heart of yearning in a frame of steel.”  Really great stuff, very thoughtful and often poetic.

The Bell-Tower

This was a strange story, more akin to a Doctor Who episode than anything else.  What grabbed my attention was the fact that it was about a mechanical figure, practically a contraption, but Melville made you think it was as mobile as an (lowercase-a) android.  Weird story.

Benito Cereno

To me, this was the dud of the group, which is unfortunate since it’s the longest story.  There was a lot of buildup and very little surprise in the plotline, and throughout, a lot of racist mentality coming from the main characters.  By that, I don’t even mean “ignorant prejudice” or “man of the times”; at least, it came across worse than that.  Not much to recommend here on any front.

The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids

Honestly (and after “Benito”), I had no idea what to expect with this one.  It was excellent.  This story contrasts two lifestyles – British bachelors in a prestigious club and New England single women working in a paper mill.  If you want to know why Melville is a great author, you need only read “The Tartarus of Maids” and you’ll understand.  He conveys such a vivid scene through beautiful writing, ultimately to shock you with what reality was for someone who could have been you – “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.”

Billy Budd, Sailor

I knew this story from listening to a radio drama version many years ago.  Still, there was so much in it that was thought- and question-provoking.

Billy Budd was an illegitimate child abandoned at birth, who later became a sailor on an English merchant ship, late 1700s.  Though happy, content, and well-liked on his “home” ship, he gets suddenly impressed into the Royal Navy, taken onto a ship under a Captain Vere.  Billy takes this in stride, cheerfully adapting to his new life and making no enemies of anyone – except, unbeknownst to him, a petty officer named Claggart.  Claggart’s dislike of Billy grows into hatred, and to the captain he takes his false accusation – that Billy is complicit in an imminent mutiny.

Wow…this story is like Moby-Dick in the sense that you could argue about it for hours.  Not simply over the moral dilemma, but over the story itself.  Why does Claggart persecute Billy?  What were Vere’s parting words all about?  And what did the surgeon have to do with it anyway (if anything)?

One thing that bothered me was the long speech the captain gives.  In it, he essentially says that, despite his belief in the ultimate Judge’s vindication of the accused, martial law must be still followed under the extenuating circumstances.  I find it difficult, especially in the context of a state (England) with a state church, that an authority figure would say “God will find him innocent” and “We need to dole out punishment” in the same breath.  Poor writing, captain’s paranoia, or what?  I don’t know.  It’s much more plausible to say “Let’s make an example,” which he indicates later on.  That at least makes utilitarian sense, and it is either practicality or paranoia that drives the captain’s reaction in this plot.

“Billy Budd” is a very good story, and I won’t say anything more, except that I recommend it.  Don’t read the synopsis ahead of time, yet if you do, you will nonetheless empathize with the “Handsome Sailor,” who never understood what happened to him.  5 stars.

8 ♦ Ashputtle

Cinderella-Prinsep …also known as Cinderella!

I promise I shuffled the cards very, very well at the beginning of this challenge, and yet here we have another fairytale.   Not that I’m complaining.  (And besides, random selection is unlikely to be uniform.)  I already know my next card – and rest assured! it’s not a diamond.

The Grimm fairytales are an altogether different assortment than Andersen.  For one thing, the Grimm brothers were primarily collectors, scholars, and editors, not inventors of original tales.  There is decidedly less poetry in their stories.  The style is terse and upfront, making these plots fast-paced and very short.  “Ashputtle” is no exception.

Once again, I was unsettled by the violence – and, well, mutilation – found in an otherwise familiar setting.  There was no modern feeling of concern in Ashputtle’s marrying a stranger, since she could hardly do worse than her own family.  Even her father, alive in this version, appears to disown her; he is quick to marry again and also begins to think of her as a servant.  I don’t know…I guess it was a happy ending (?!).

It was interesting how logistics were handled in this story.  The narrator is so careful to explain how Ashputtle could have gone to the ball in her beautiful gown and come back in time to change back into her old dress.  Yet other facts (the origins of the family dysfunction, for one) are completely glossed over.  I suppose that is more characteristic of what a child’s questions would be, as opposed to an adult’s.

I’ve read a few other Grimm stories before this one, and I can say that the difference between the “dark” aspects of Grimm versus those of Andersen are the way they are presented.  Andersen takes his stories pretty seriously and wants the reader to do the same.  Grimms’ stories are almost tongue-in-cheek, self-consciously shocking, and effectively dark humor.  I’ll bet that was more for the storyteller’s benefit than the children’s…

3 stars.

Wait – I ought to mention Hawthorne, since his mythology came first.  He would certainly not have written something so dark as “Ashputtle,” and I think that – dare I say it – his distinctly American type of realism would not have come up with a moral as convoluted as the one in “The Little Mermaid.”  The trade-off is that while I can rate “The Golden Fleece” higher, these other two are vastly more memorable.

To a degree, it may be unfair to compare them exactly.  A mythology should be a bit grand, and a fairytale at least a little weird.  Still, these were all written for children, and I think there is something to get out of each of them, as different as they are.

5 ♦ The Little Mermaid

Page 130 illustration in fairy tales of Andersen (Stratton)

Not gonna lie…I cried.  😦

This is an original fairytale by Hans Christen Andersen (who also wrote the lesser-known “The Wild Swans,” probably my favorite fairytale of all time).  Most people know “The Little Mermaid” from the Disney film, and initially the plots are very similar.  A young mermaid, forever fascinated by the world of humans, is finally allowed to rise to the surface of the sea on her fifteenth birthday.  As it would happen, she falls in love with a human prince, who is also celebrating his birthday on board a ship.  And – as it always does – the little mermaid’s love is a lost cause, because when she tries to escape the world she was born into, it comes at a terrible price.

I almost just called her “Ariel,” but Andersen’s mermaid, prince, and Sea King are anonymous throughout the story.  It makes it even more poignant, I think, and maybe that is the power of these old fairytales – you are allowed to project your own characterization onto the character, except for those traits that stand out most, like the little mermaid’s voice.  You know you are only going to follow their lives for the duration of the short story, and they’re like strangers whom, for one moment in your life, you get to know.

There are so many things wrong with this story.  I am going to get a bit analytical here, and be warned of all the major spoilers below the cut:

Andersen’s version of the mermaid “race” is a strange, strange conglomeration of different philosophies and religions.  It reads more like mythology than a fairytale.  Essentially, the little mermaid learns she must become human to have a chance at winning the prince’s heart, and (in the same breath) her marriage to him would be the only way for her to gain an immortal soul, and the future of “heaven.”

To become human, she has to get a magic potion from a nasty sorceress-mermaid, and to pay for the potion, she must give her gift – her uniquely beautiful voice.  This is no Disneyfied metaphor; the poor little mermaid actually lets the sorceress cut out her tongue.  I sure didn’t remember that bit from childhood.  And of course, to walk is torture for her.  Her feet literally bleed from it as she follows the prince on his excursions in the mountains.

This prince must be the cruelest jerk who ever held the title.  He uses her as his listener, friend, and girlfriend, and even tells her he would marry her, but for everybody’s expectations.  In the end, he marries a princess and forgets all about her, the girl who saved his life and could not even tell him that she had.

By no means would I give this story to a child young enough to take it seriously.  As an older reader, I found the portrayal of heartbreak to be quite moving, even insightful.  It is a hard but important lesson to learn – that, do what you might (and especially wrong), you may not get what you want.  Some people don’t deserve you, and some things aren’t meant to be.  The prince may not be as noble and good as he looks.

Others have taken issue with the happy ending, and I have to agree.  My quibble is not with the happiness of the ending, but with the moral: because of her good deeds, the little mermaid is given a chance to earn immortal life as a “daughter of the air” (Angel?  Bird?  Cloud?  What does it mean?).  Herein lies the problem – what are these “good deeds” she has done?  True, she saved the prince’s life.  But she also took help from the sorceress, and her whole quest for immortality was tied to the prince in the first place.  I can suspend some disbelief given her naivete; however, this still feels like a plot hole.

*sigh*  I have such a love/hate feeling about this story.  It could be written much better, yet at the same time, its brutality is (perhaps) key to the message.  3 out of 5 stars.

9 ♠ A Sound of Thunder

In this second round of the Deal Me In challenge, I was excited to read a classic by Ray Bradbury, whose works are new to me.  “A Sound of Thunder” is one of his best-known science fictions, and it’s about a man named Eckels who signs up to go back in time on a safari – hunting dinosaurs, that is.

I guess I will always compare these kinds of plots to The Lost World by Conan Doyle, a big favorite of mine.  My overall feeling about “A Sound of Thunder” was that, in scope, it was trying too hard.  It covered the two big topics, prehistoric life and time travel, but there wasn’t a lot of development, and the reader was asked to take a lot at face value.  For example, (spoiler in white):  Eckels’s behavior seemed perfectly natural to me, and it’s hard to imagine him being the first offender.  There were some good descriptions throughout, but also gratuitous cussing that felt like filler.

1.5 stars.  Decent read for waiting at the doctor’s office, not worth it if you have more time.

4 ♦ The Golden Fleece

And my first story for the Deal Me In challenge comes from Tanglewood Tales.  How appropriate!

Constantine Volanakis Argo

“The Golden Fleece” is the last story in Tanglewood Tales, a sequel to A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys.  Through the frame plot of a young student, Eustace Bright, retelling Greek myths to his little cousins, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes us through the highlights of these sanguinary dramas in a quaint, cosy, and child-friendly format.  “The Golden Fleece” recounts the epic quest of Jason and the Argonauts, as they embark in a fifty-oar ship to find the mythical ram’s fleece and reclaim the kingdom that was stolen from Jason’s father.

I enjoyed this story quite a bit.  It was entertaining and often funny, a nice balance to the darkness of Gatsby to start off this year’s reading.  The abrupt ending – and a few loose threads – were the main things I wished had been tidied up.  However, those are more or less due to the myths themselves and not Hawthorne’s rendition, necessarily.  4.5 stars.

A side note – many critics would take issue with his bowdlerization of the original plots.  It doesn’t bother me, especially since he approaches it almost like a spin-off rather than censorship.  Growing up, I read another small collection (for children) of the Greek myths, and it was perhaps slightly less “adapted,” but also more dreary.  The point is, I do think this is a good adaptation to give kids the gist of the myths.  This, and Wishbone (oops – dating myself here!).