An Advocate for the Arcane: H. P. Lovecraft

While gurgling and coughing things not quite syllables, colored sputum being feverishly worked towards the throat, one rarely wonders about anything outside of the present misery of their condition. I can’t help but if that’s how Howard Phillips Lovecraft felt as a young man wrestling with his own physical frailties, until his grandfather came in to tell him stories in bed.

H. P. Lovecraft was an author who died in the 1930s, at the time not widely recognized or appreciated and quite penniless. He has since found some modest popularity for his Weird Tales magazine publications. A sickly child, he would listen intently to his grandfather’s stories of the strange and paranormal in the late 1800s. He grew close with his grandfather, as his own father had been institutionalized in 1893. Such an isolated upbringing was only shaken in Lovecraft’s teenage years, and by then he was deeply enthralled with ideas of unexplained and hidden knowledge.

That ship is about to have a bad day...
Cthulhu rising from the deep.

This is not so much a review of the man’s writings as a reflection. His works vary in their composition — some are tedious to read, while others are quite enjoyable. You can find those here. I suppose what I find so interesting is how a mind consumed by the arcane creates more strange and hidden things — stories such as The Call of Cthulhu (Arguments exist over its pronunciation. Imagine that.) or The Shadow over Innsmouth transport the reader to a world vaguely familiar, but just different enough to disturb. Tentacled giants sleeping in the deep, formless energies of chaos clawing to enter the physical world — all these crazy ideas that some forms of fiction take for granted were popularized by this fairly obscure author from the early 20th century. Indeed, Lovecraft’s characters have found themselves in heavy metal songs, cartoon episodes, video games, and even independent movies. There are even plush dolls of some of his monsters.

Not quite so scary now, is he?
Cthulhu plushie!

All that to say, an exploration of Lovecraft’s work is worthwhile — if for nothing more than an experience in early American horror stories. It offers an interesting glimpse into what can work its way into someone’s psyche after spending time isolated, and of what can come crawling out of our own minds if we indulge a darker creative impulse. Just please, don’t try to read them aloud. You’ll just frustrate yourself. And if you’re wondering about who to vote for in the current election cycle, Lovecraft fans already have an answer.politics cthulhu

The Ramifications of Rage

“Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, / murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, / hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls” (Iliad 1.1-3).  From these first lines to the very last, the Iliad by Homer is about Achilles, his rages, and their consequences.  The crucial quarrel is the one with which the Iliad opens.  After relinquishing his war prize and concubine Chryseis to appease Apollo, Agamemnon demands Achilles’ prize Briseis as recompense.  Offended by this imperious treatment but forced to submit, Achilles breaks with Agamemnon and removes himself from the Achaean army.  Although Achilles’ anger stems from an undeniable offense, Achilles should not have withdrawn from the conflict because the Achaean army needs him, the war is not about his personal quarrels, and he has agreed to help Agamemnon and Menelaus reclaim Helen.

As Homer reveals from the outset, the Achaeans need Achilles, and his absence has dire consequences for the Achaean army.  Being Peleus’ son, Achilles leads a large army of Myrmidons, and when Achilles withdraws from the war, the Myrmidons follow him, depleting the Argive fighting force (Iliad 2.780-83).  Additionally, Achilles is a valuable warrior, whom even Agamemnon describes as “worth an entire army” (Iliad 9.140).  In fact, Homer seems to consider Achilles the only Argive capable of defeating the Trojan hero Hector (Iliad 7.326-34).  And as Patroclus proves when he fights disguised as Achilles, defeating Hector and the Trojans requires more than merely the fear and awe that Achilles inspires.  To conquer Hector necessitates the strength and skill only Achilles appears to possess.  Ultimately, however, Achilles’ withdrawal proves the Achaeans’ need of him, for his absence prolongs the war – indirectly resulting in more Achaean deaths (Iliad 1.1-5).  Although at first heroes like Diomedes bring the Achaeans success and fill the hole Achilles leaves, the Trojans soon gain the upper hand.  No longer fearing an encounter with Achilles, the Trojans grow bold, thrust the Achaeans back to the beaches, and set fire to one of the Achaean ships (Iliad 16.148-50).

Menelaus and Helen
Menelaus and Helen

Not only do the Achaeans need Achilles, but the war is not about Achilles’ personal grievances.  The ultimate purpose of the war with Troy is to regain Helen for Menelaus, and the secondary purpose is to punish Paris (Iliad 9.409-12; 3.30-33).  Yet Achilles places his honor above the lives of his comrades and above the allegiance he owes Agamemnon and Menelaus.  In fact, though Achilles considers submission to Agamemnon’s affront as shameful, it is actually Achilles’ selfish response that shames him.  According to the Book of Proverbs, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Authorized Version, 16.32).  Instead of demonstrating self-control, Achilles selfishly throws friends in harm’s way when he leaves the army in his attempt to avenge affronted pride.

Menelaus
Menelaus

In addition to owing his comrades loyalty, Achilles has agreed to help Agamemnon and Menelaus reclaim Helen.  Achilles declares to Agamemnon, “We all followed you, / to please you, to fight for you, to win your honor / back from the Trojans – Menelaus and you” (Iliad 1.186-88).  Achilles further owes Agamemnon his allegiance, for Achilles’ father Peleus has sent him to fight for Agamemnon (Iliad 9.306-7, 533-34).  Additionally, the Achaeans and Zeus have appointed Agamemnon head of the armies, and even Achilles acknowledges Agamemnon and Menelaus are the “supreme commanders” (Iliad 9.114-16; 1.444).  Achilles particularly owes Menelaus steadfastness in the war because it is on Menelaus’ behalf the Achaeans are fighting.  For this reason, the actions of Agamemnon are an insufficient cause for Achilles to desert the entire war.

Some might argue that Achilles should have removed himself from the army because Agamemnon has wronged him.  However, Achilles should not have withdrawn because he leaves out of pride, still owes allegiance to Agamemnon and Menelaus, and brings disaster on his allies as a result.

If Achilles leaves the army because Agamemnon has broken the law, his actions might be justified.  As Homer makes evident, however, Achilles acts out of pride.  What offends Achilles is that Agamemnon takes the prize which the Achaeans have given to Achilles as a symbol of his honor (Amos 29).  Although Achilles repeatedly speaks as if Briseis is crucial in the quarrel, his actions argue otherwise, for he quickly yields to Agamemnon’s demands and even declares

“My hands will never do battle for that girl,

neither with you, King, nor any man alive.

You Achaeans gave her, now you’ve snatched her back.

But all the rest I possess beside my fast black ship –

not one bit of it can you seize against my will, Atrides.

Come, try it!” (Iliad 1.349-54)

Thetis
Thetis

By his tone and words, Achilles indicates he is more interested in displaying his superior prowess to Agamemnon than in avenging injustice.  Achilles mentions his disgraced honor twice as much as his love for or loss of Briseis, and even his references to Briseis are colored with an interest in his own glory.  For example, when laying his plight before his mother Thetis, Achilles says, “Agamemnon…disgraces me, seizes and keeps my prize” (Iliad 1.421).  Achilles lists his disgrace first in his complaint and only refers to Briseis as “my prize.”

In addition to acting for the wrong reasons, Achilles still owes Agamemnon allegiance, for Agamemnon’s actions have not negated it (Iliad 1.186-88; 9.533-34).  As the Argives’ supreme commander, Agamemnon acts within his rights when he takes Briseis, for “he was entitled to a special prize out of any booty taken” (Warry 11).  According to one historian, “A consideration of the role which [Agamemnon] plays in the Iliad suggests that his apparent military and political supremacy was as much a question of honour as of jurisdiction” (Warry 11).  Thus, losing Chryseis – if seen as a slight to Agamemnon’s honor – gives him the right to increase his honor with a replacement, even if doing so means dishonoring another man.

Nestor
Nestor

Above all, Achilles should not have punished the Achaeans for Agamemnon’s actions.  To begin with, the Achaeans try to stop Agamemnon from taking Briseis from Achilles, despite the fact that Agamemnon is irascible and has the largest army (Iliad 1.329).  Nestor pleads with Agamemnon not to seize Briseis (Iliad 1.320-23), and later the Achaeans are quick to urge Agamemnon to appease Achilles and give Achilles gifts to recompense him (Iliad 9.133-35).  Most importantly, though, Achilles himself absolves the Achaeans from guilt, telling those who come to take Briseis, “You have done nothing to me. / You are not to blame.  No one but Agamemnon” (Iliad 1.395-96).  Yet despite these claims, Achilles willfully hurts his comrades, invoking Zeus to “mow them down” and let them all “reap the benefits of their king” (Iliad 1.485-90).

Although Achilles’ anger stems from a genuine outrage, he should not have withdrawn from the battle.  As Homer proves again and again, Achilles’ comrades need his help and suffer in his absence.  When he withdraws, Achilles punishes the innocent along with the guilty, breaks his allegiance to Agamemnon and Menelaus, and hinders the purposes of the war – to reclaim Helen and punish Paris.  Through the Iliad, Homer reveals the nature of pride and its consequences.  Those who are proud are self-centered, value the opinions, but not the lives, of others, and lead themselves and those who surround them to harm.  In the Iliad, Homer exemplifies how detrimental pride can be, for Achilles’ pride and subsequent rage have unforeseen ramifications that prove destructive both to himself and to his comrades.


 

Works Cited

Amos, H. D. and A.G.P. Lang.  These Were the Greeks.  Chester Springs, Pennsylvania:  Dufour Editions, Inc., 1996.

Homer.  The Iliad.  Trans. Robert Fagles.  London, England:  Penguin Books, 1990.

The Holy Bible: Authorized Version.  Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press, n.d.  Print.

Warry, John.  Warfare in the Classical World.  Norman, Oklahoma:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Using the Right Language

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)

The other day, I had to explain to a Colombian student that referring to his relatives as his “familiars” not only did not make sense to most people, but technically meant that he was summoning the spirits, mostly likely malevolent, who served him.

Yup, you can say some pretty weird things even when you’re fairly fluent in a language, as this student was, but especially when you’re not, like when American Spanish 101 students try to say they’re “embarrassed” in Spanish. They simply say “embarasado” on the off chance that it’s one of those words you can simply add an “o” to and be done with it. It’s not; what it sounds like is “embarazada,” which means “pregnant.”

And now we know why we shouldn’t make up words, for spoken languages are really one of weirdest things out there, if you really think about it. We make sounds with our mouths (or rather, the instruments behind our mouths) and depending on the order, pitch, and consistency of those sounds, you can order a pizza or start a war.

The possibilities for communication are endless, as are the possibilities for miscommunication, like when a Taiwanese student told me part of the new responsibilities that came with his promotion was “chaining new employees.” Long story short, the word he meant was “training,” and we spent a long time working out how to pronounce that “tr” sound.

My work with international students is full of little incidents like that, some of which make for readily available anecdotes, and others of which are less printable. Let’s just say that I had no idea that, in the right accent, the noun “Falklands” and the verb “taught” could both be heard as quite a different word.

In such cases, I simply explain the mistake, whether it be in vocabulary, pronunciation, or phrasing, and then the student and I practice the right way to do it. Depending on the severity of the mistake, a student might be rather embarrassed, even quite frustrated with themselves. It’s then that I tell them that I also read plenty of American students’ papers, and trust me, they’re native speakers and they say things they don’t mean to all the time. I do too, actually. It’s very easy to get your words twisted around.

But then I think, what about the time when I know exactly what I’m saying, and that it’s not the best thing I could say? What about when what I’m saying isn’t honest, or nice, or uplifting, or even just a necessary truth, and then I say it anyway? There are no excuses then. I’m not missing any words in my vocabulary. These are the phrases that I have known all my life, and now I’m using them very intentionally, in ways that they shouldn’t be wasted.

I see international students practicing their English, working hard to smooth out issues, small and large, until they can communicate like a native speaker. They remind me that all of us should work to improve our language, until we can use the words God gave us in the way they were meant to be used.

Summer Movie Reviews: MI-5 and Antman

Summer is all but gone, but the summer blockbusters keep rolling in – here are a couple in review.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Mission-Impossible-Rogue-Nation-IMAX-Poster

Synopsis: with the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) disbanded by the CIA, Ethan Hunt and his team of agents must find a way to stop the Syndicate from perpetrating its terrorist goals.

Rogue Nation is based on a predictable formula – an impossible mission (it’s in the title), a sly opponent, a team of resourceful heroes, an array of exotic locales, and of course, an arsenal of high-tech gadgets. What is surprising is how well this formula continues to work. Tom Cruise leads the IMF team, along with a dry-witted Simon Pegg and a stern Jeremy Renner. Despite a somewhat rushed ending, the good dialog, well-paced action scenes, and dramatic plot twists are the adhesives that hold this film together and make it the fun action movie it is.

Antman

ant-man-poster-1

Synopsis: ex-convict Scott Lang, after struggling to find work because of his criminal record, is recruited by researcher Hank Pym to steal a critical piece of technology from a crazed weapons researcher.

More a comedy with a dose of action than a superhero movie, Antman has a lighter tone than many other superhero films of late. The movie doesn’t have the large set pieces typical of Marvel movies–there are no flying aircraft carriers, floating cities, or world-flattening Tesseracts. This is appropriate; the movie is about Ant-man, after all. The filmmakers have fun with the idea of shrinking a person down to ant-sized proportions and uses it to full comedic effect.

Overall, this movie was one of the biggest surprises of the summer for me–I went to the theater expecting a dumb, boring wannabe superhero movie, but instead I found a film that, despite its small proportions, was highly entertaining.

While neither of these pictures will be remembered for being either profound or thought-provoking, they do quite well for a bit of summer entertainment!