The Divine Comedy – Parts 2 & 3: Purgatorio and Paradiso

Previously: Part 1: Inferno

Purgatorio

And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy

After enduring the nine circles of Hell, Dante and Virgil finally make it out of the underworld and back to the surface of the earth.  Under a starlit sky, they watch as a boat filled with souls and captained by an angel approaches the foot of Mount Purgatory.  Dante continues on his own journey as he follows Virgil up the nine levels of the mountain.  Together, in a similar vein to their experiences in Inferno, the two travelers observe the different disciplines which souls must endure before they have been “purified” of their remaining sins and made fit to enter Paradiso.

Some readers find the second two books of The Divine Comedy to be less interesting than the first.  I actually found Purgatorio to be much more compelling than Inferno, despite my expectations and the fact I don’t personally believe in the doctrine of purgatory. I think this must be for three reasons:

  1. being glad to have finished Inferno, which was really unpleasant
  2. the variety and beauty of imagery in Purgatorio: half-celestial, half-earthly
  3. the element of hope, which is not present in Inferno

As before, Dante meets a number of real-life individuals on the mountain, while commenting upon contemporary issues in Italy.  He himself goes through purification of the seven “Ps” (peccatum = sin) as he moves from level to level.  Finally, leaving Purgatorio behind, he comes out again into the open air and finds the woman he loves – Beatrice – in a beautiful forest.

 

Paradiso

After Purgatorio, which was almost enthralling, Paradiso was a great disappointment.

Virgil, one of the condemned spirits, had to leave Dante at the end of Purgatorio, as I somewhat anticipated.  Now with his beloved Beatrice as his guide, the young poet completes his journey by ascending the nine levels of Heaven.  Along the way, he meets Biblical and Christian figures such as Solomon, St. Peter, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Venerable Bede.  The higher he climbs, the more intense become the light and worship, culminating in the dazzling pinnacle of Paradiso, where God is exalted above all.

I’m afraid Dante’s imagining of Heaven is, well, boring.  Unlike the other two places of existence, there is little scenic variety here, and the illustrator, Doré, seems to have been of the same impression – there are far fewer illustrations in this book than in the other two.  Also, Dante makes what I think is a huge writer’s mistake in inserting his real-life love interest as one of the main characters, then proceeding to portray himself as staring at her adoringly through much of the story, while she grows more and more beautiful.  It’s hard to take it seriously.

Overall

This may be philistine of me, but I honestly think The Divine Comedy is somewhat overrated.  As a work of the early 14th century, it is indisputably impressive, and I sympathize with the author to the extent that he wrote this while banished from his homeland.  But with the insertion of personal life, the commentary on Italian affairs and figures, as well as some questionable theology, there was much I could not relate to.  For me personally, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a stronger allegory of faith, not to mention more enjoyable.

Jurassic World 2: Dinos and Russians and Clones, Oh My!

Yesterday my sister, brother, and I hit the local movie theater for a viewing of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  We’re relatively new fans – Jurassic World 1 (2015) was a first for us – but having since enjoyed the rest of the franchise, we were excited for the next installment of prehistoric monsters chasing after the indestructible Chris Pratt.  After enduring 20 minutes of inanity – er, previews – we sat up in our seats with zeal, watching a very tiny, obviously illegal submarine descend the watery coast of Isla Nublar.

Submarine?  Skeletons?  Count me in!

This tremendous opener was, alas, the beginning of a tremendous letdown.  Let me break it down into some coherent chunks of thought.

But First, Science

The movie begins with glimpses of the “Fallen Kingdom”: Isla Nublar in decay after the disastrous failure of its Jurassic World theme park.  Cut to a shot of a well-dressed Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) with some actually sound advice – Let it goooo, Let it gooo – which not everyone, including Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is ready to do.  Actually, Claire is now head of a conservation effort to get the surviving dinosaurs off the island, before the active volcano destroys everything.  She is assisted by two new characters: Zia, a passionate paleo-veterinarian, and Franklin, the (properly terrified) IT guy.

Claire, rockin’ a ponytail, and the new guy, Franklin

Claire’s 180-degree change of heart (this was the woman who shrugged off the “assets” in the first film) can be seen as a sort of redemption attempt, though some, including former researcher Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), share Dr. Malcolm’s opinion.  Unbeknownst to either of them, sinister forces are working behind the scenes to sabotage the whole operation.  What starts out as a rescue mission becomes a survival story – for dinos and humans – with our feisty quartet pitted against evil businessmen looking to make millions.  Money, money, money.

Anyone watching a Jurassic movie must suspend disbelief.  However, and as much as we love the dinosaurs, are we really to believe Claire’s conservation efforts are worthwhile?  The plan which she agrees to involves moving 11 species to another island, where they’ll be allowed to live free.  However, it is unclear how big this new island is, and whether enough of each species will be transported for them to actually be preserved – “for the children.”  In fact, if you’ve ever researched the amount of space required for mere lions to roam comfortably, as well as maintain enough numbers to avoid inbreeding, you’ll start to question this scheme.

All that said, let us assume those details have been ironed out off-screen.  After all, they decided not to listen to the mathematician this time… 

Dinos (and Chris Pratt) Just Get Cooler and Cooler

Those looking to get their monster-movie fix will not be disappointed in that department.  Fallen Kingdom features not only our old favorites – “Blue” the velociraptor and the mosasaurus lurking under the sea – but a new hybrid creature, concocted by none other than Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) himself.

Owen’s strength is knowing when to fight, but also when to hide

Without giving too much away, I found the new dinosaur to be appropriately scary (even chilling), and that is saying a lot, considering this plotline is a rehash from Jurassic World 1.  (Much of the movie – from plot to characters – repeats former Jurassic elements, something reviewers have been quick to point out.)  Couple this unnatural creature with the natural disaster on Isla Nublar, and you have some pretty awesome scenes throughout the film, where the CGI becomes standalone art in itself.

I mentioned Blue is back, and that is where Owen comes back in.  It’s not hard to see why the gruff, outdoorsy, Coca-Cola-sipping Owen has a soft spot for Blue.  The raptor is like a favorite dog, raised from puppy to full-grown bloodhound.  In true animal-character style, Blue has her own important part to play in the unfolding drama.

What’s with Those Russians and Cowboys?

While the Jurassic movie series has always borne its share of social commentary, this is perhaps (and I’m going solely by memory) the first installment which goes a step further, into political territory.  Personally, I sit down to a dinosaur movie to escape politics, but from the beginning, Fallen Kingdom refuses to allow me escape.

We very soon see a “BBC” clip about Isla Nublar, where the news ticker text reports that the current U. S. president doubts the existence of the Jurassic World dinosaurs (after they have injured hundreds of visitors).  We can debate whether he would actually disbelieve this, but it’s obviously a jab at Trump.  One of the villains uses Trump’s “nasty woman” quote in reference to Zia, the (awkwardly stereotyped) feminist character.  The apparently Republican U. S. Congress is also posed as an initial antagonist, because they, like Dr. Malcolm, find it pragmatic to allow nature to take its course.

Dr. Malcolm speaking to the U.S. Senate

It gets even better after the setting switches from the Fallen Kingdom to – an old manor house.  Yes, Jurassic World 2 features the haunted house trope.  To be fair, it is effective, especially from the eyes of the little girl Maisie (Isabella Sermon).  What is she to think when she sees that sinister-looking Russian gentleman walk up the drive?  And…those cowboys!

The appeal of owning a dinosaur is international, but according to the screenwriters, we have to be especially careful of Russians, plus ranchers from the Southwest.  Out of all the diverse people who are interested in these powerful creatures, the camera lingers on those two groups – the former with their glowering stares, and the latter with their bright white hats and shiny bolo ties.  (Convince me I’m reading too much into it.  I would like to think it’s just me.)

“Genetic power has now been unleashed…”

The ending surprised me…not in a good way.  In spite of opportunities to tie up loose ends, the screenwriters chose to leave a lot of things open.  I hear they are planning a third film, to be released in 2021.

Can anything save what I fear is a fallen franchise?  Possibly, though if Jurassic World 2 is any indication, I won’t get my hopes up.  Apart from a weak plot and a heavy-handed political bent, Fallen Kingdom disappointed where it could have excelled, in its characters (more cliches), plot (mostly rehash), and vision (lack thereof).  At best, it is a visual treat, while the story leaves you feeling a bit sickly afterwards.

Is Fallen Kingdom horrible?  No.  It’s just mediocre, the kind of thing you save for a long plane ride.  Collectively, my siblings and I settled on 2.5 out of 5 stars.

She – A Classic, or a Trendy Tale of Obsession?

John William Godward - Atalanta

If the title brings to mind a song by the classic tenor Charles Aznavour, you wouldn’t be far off from the theme of H. Rider Haggard‘s book.  The song’s tender, yet at times worshipful lyrics could be one way to describe the “spell” which She, Ayesha, inspires in those who are privileged (or cursed) to look upon her unveiled face.  As might be expected, those who do so find their lives bound to hers, and, like a drug, she compels them to love her, in spite of her unpleasant ways.

But let’s start at the beginning.  It’s the late 19th century, and young Leo Vincey learns from his adoptive father Horace Holly that he is heir to a special family heirloom, comprised chiefly of an ancient piece of pottery.  The pottery is covered in writing, which tells a grim tale of Leo’s ancient ancestor, Kallikrates, being lusted after and then murdered by a mysterious, white sorceress, who lives in Africa.  Kallikrates’ wife urges her descendants to seek out Ayesha and avenge their father.  Leo, evidently finding life in Cambridge too safe for his liking, decides to go to Africa and see if there’s any truth in the story.  Holly and Job, like the good friends they are, agree to accompany him.

She caverns

What follows is an adventure that is both bizarre and, at times, humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally).  On the one side, you have a classic premise of a search for lost treasure – in this case, lost revenge – and on the other hand, there’s a reverse Sleeping Beauty twist, in which an innocent prince is to be “awoken” by a wicked witch.  This rather unique premise seemed like a good idea for a story, but personally I found its execution to be lacking, both in terms of content and message as well as in the somewhat pedestrian writing style.

In spite of its flaws, Haggard’s novel and the fierce title character influenced both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who would later create their own “queen” characters not dissimilar to Ayesha.  Fortunately for us, the less savory aspects of She – including its dated handling of race, class, and female characters – were either greatly reduced or replaced in those later works, particularly in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  For more on that (and some other fun facts), please check out my latest podcast episode on Classics Considered, which goes into it in detail.

Overall, I would give She 2.5 out of 5 stars; it’s interesting in a historical and literary context, but not a must-read.  For a stronger “lost world” novel, I’d recommend The Lost World (surprise!) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Prairie

Bierstadt Albert Western Kansas

Chronologically last in James Fenimore Cooper‘s Leatherstocking series, The Prairie follows the wagon train of Ishmael Bush and his family, who are journeying into the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase.  The Bushes make their own laws and shun society, even that of an old, solitary Trapper who stumbles across their campsite.  He does not fail to notice that one of their wagons is closely guarded, carrying something or someone that never sees the light of day.  A chance meeting with a Captain Middleton and a party of hostile Sioux sends events and characters into a crazy chase across the prairies, where friendships and hatreds arise from unpredictable sides.

I had high hopes for this book, assigned reading in my Early American Arts, Music, & Lit class.  Even now, I would still like to read The Last of the Mohicans, which features the protagonist – the Trapper – in his younger years.  Overall, The Prairie was like Seven Gables in that the concept was great and the execution was disappointing.

More specifically, this book was painfully slow.  Mark Twain wrote a piece called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” and after reading an excerpt where he dissects paragraphs from The Prairie, I’m inclined to agree with him.  It’s a 500+ page tome with only enough action for a book half that size.  It was published in 1827, and Cooper’s style is very much conventional – no philosophical digressions as in later American works, like Moby-Dick.  Descriptions of characters and situations take up most of the time, while descriptions of the landscape (which are excellent) are given a handful of paragraphs.  The Trapper talks a lot, even in the middle of an action scene, though the actions scenes were still by far the highlight in The Prairie.

According to my professor, portrayal of Native Americans in this book was typical for the times (i.e. riddled with inaccuracies), but to Cooper’s credit, it seemed to me that he tried to write villains and heroes from both groups of people (one of the worst villains is a member of the Bush wagon train).  My favorite part overall was the duel between the Sioux chief and the Pawnee warrior, one of the very best duelling scenes I’ve read.  The Trapper, too, is arguably closer to the Native Americans than the European Americans, which is pretty significant. 

2.5 out of 5 stars for The Prairie.  Recommended if you are looking to finish the Leatherstocking series, but I imagine there are better volumes to start with.