#08-359: The Death of Merlin

The Death of Merlin

Friday, November 17, 2023

In the 15th century, a knight named Thomas Malory set about to record an organized account of the life of the legendary King Arthur, taken from various sources. The story is so long that it is almost always published in two volumes. And yet, the work is titled after only one event in the story. It is called "Le Morte d'Arthur"--the death of Arthur.

It seems the title is a classic mistake, and not the one Malory intended at all. It was meant to be the title of only the final section of the whole, but when Malory ended that portion, "Thus endeth this... book [meaning "section"] entytled le morte Darthur..." it was taken as the name of the entire book.

But it is not entirely wrong. From his conception through his birth, testing, kingship, and final battle, Arthur's whole life seems to have been aiming for that one moment. And Malory's account of his death and the disposition of his remains is certainly one of the most stirring in the entire story.

But Malory's is only one of a myriad of accounts of Arthur's life. And the same is true of his wizard and advisor, Merlin. The only point the various accounts of Merlin's death have in common is that he was trapped by a female student.

Was she his lover? Was it requited? Was she a woman, or an adolescent girl? Was it in England, Brittany (a peninsula on the northwest coast of France), or Wales?

What was her name? Morgan le Fay? Nyneve, Nymue, or Nimue? Viviane? Niniane? Was she a Lady of the Lake?

And in what was Merlin trapped? In a tree? In a cave? Under a large stone? In a pit in the ground? Or in a crystal tower, which through magic appeared only as a mist to passersby?

Was Merlin truly deceived? Or did he allow it to happen? Or knowing what was happening, did he somehow lose the power to stop it?

The only outline we can derive from the many, many stories is this: Merlin had a talented female student. Whether out of possessive love or vaunting ambition, she decided to set him aside--but not kill him. Using the powers he had given her, she eternally suspended him in either a natural or supernatural state. Some say she could still visit him, and that his voice could still be heard after he was gone.

But some say it was just the wind in the trees.

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. adolescent
  2. deceived
  3. myriad
  4. passersby
  5. possessive
  6. requited
  7. stirring
  8. supernatural
  9. suspended
  10. vaunting
  1. not of this earth
  2. excessive
  3. prevented from continuing
  4. returned
  5. people going past
  6. fooled
  7. demanding too much love
  8. moving; exciting
  9. large amount
  10. teenaged

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. f; 3. i; 4. e; 5. g; 6. d; 7. h; 8. a; 9. c; 10. b

#08-358: Say "Uncle"!

Say "Uncle"!

Thursday, November 16, 2023

On a popular American game show, two family groups face each other and try to guess the most popular answers to survey questions--not the right answers, mind you, but the ones most commonly given by respondents. For example, when I say, "American city," what's the first thing to come to mind? Most people would say "New York," fewer would say, "Los Angeles," and so on. Teams that choose the more popular answers win.

Now, complete this phrase: "Uncle _____." Here are my top answers:

Uncle Sam: Look at this uncle's initials and you might guess something about him: U. S. He is a fictional personification of the United States. When people pay taxes, they say "I'm sending some money to Uncle Sam." An Army recruitment ad said, "Uncle Sam wants YOU," with a grey-bearded old man in red, white, and blue pointing at the viewer.

No one knows his origins, but Uncle Sam has been an American symbol at least since the early 19th century. Some think the figure represents the citizens of the U. S., but most see "him" as a personification of the government.

Uncle Tom: Believe it or not, a novel called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the best-selling novel in 19th-century America, and the second best-selling book of any kind: only the Bible was more popular. Published in 1852, in the decade before America's Civil War, it focused on a primary cause of that war: slavery.

It tells the story of a group of slaves centered around a kindly old man they call "Uncle Tom." He is actually uncle to none of them; it's just a term of respect.

One of Uncle Tom's traits has made him controversial since the rise of the civil rights movement: he was easy-going about the slaves' condition, so he is thought of as having betrayed his race. Today, calling a black person an "Uncle Tom" is a way of saying he is too submissive to the white establishment.

Uncle Oscar: Most Americans know something of Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom. But the whole world knows of Uncle Oscar! According to one story, when the statuette for the Academy Awards was first displayed, a president of the Academy is reported to have said, "He looks like my Uncle Oscar"--and the name stuck!

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. betrayed
  2. controversial
  3. establishment
  4. personification
  5. recruitment
  6. respondents
  7. slavery
  8. statuette
  9. submissive
  10. traits
  1. the power structure in a society
  2. a figurine; a small statue
  3. characteristics; features
  4. bowing down; not asserting power
  5. the representation of an abstract idea in human form
  6. people who reply to something
  7. the attracting or hiring of workers
  8. causing disagreement
  9. the "owning" of human beings
  10. violated the trust of

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. h; 3. a; 4. e; 5. g; 6. f; 7. i; 8. b; 9. d; 10. c

#08-357: Gunsmoke


Friday, November 10, 2023

When I was a kid there was one television in the house, and no other means of watching: no computers, no smart phones. Dad, a hard-working man, usually fell asleep on the sofa after dinner. But he commandeered the family TV for one hour on Saturday nights (later Mondays) for "his show": a "western" (cowboy) program called "Gunsmoke."

The 1960s were the heyday of TV westerns; one source lists nearly 90 appearing at some point during the decade, including comedies, children's shows, anthology series, and even cartoons. (In addition to Gunsmoke, Dad later started watching "Bonanza" and "High Chaparral.")

But "Gunsmoke" was born well before the '60s, starting as a radio program in 1952. It made the leap to television in 1955 (though the radio program continued until 1961, overlapping the TV version by several years). The TV series ran for 20 seasons, with a total of 635 episodes.

Both iterations had essentially the same setting and cast of characters, though played by an entirely different cast.

The stories centered on Marshal Matt Dillon, a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870s. Dodge at the time was the "queen of the cow towns," a railhead to which ranchers in Texas drove thousands of head of cattle hundreds of miles for shipping to the east. This brought in lots of wild cowboys with money in their pockets from the payout.

Being marshal in such a town was tough! But Matt had support. Miss Kitty Russell ran the Long Branch Saloon (a historical place) where a lot of trouble happened. Because there was regular interaction between Miss Kitty and the Marshal, she became his platonic love interest.

Needless to say, an important figure in any town of the Old West was the doctor, in this case "Doc" Adams. Called "Charles" in the radio show, his name was changed to "Galen" for the TV series, partially as a tribute to the ancient Roman Greek physician Galen (129-216 CE). Doc dispensed wise advice along with his prescriptions, serving as a moral anchor for the show.

The TV show added two "sidekicks" to the cast, both deputies to the marshal: first Chester Goode for ten years, then Festus Haggen for another ten.

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. anthology
  2. commandeered
  3. deputies
  4. dispensed
  5. head
  6. heyday
  7. iterations
  8. platonic
  9. railhead
  10. sidekicks
  1. a way of counting cows
  2. a collection of stories
  3. took control of something
  4. period of greatest popularity
  5. gave out
  6. assistants
  7. versions; repetitions
  8. intimate and affectionate but not sexual
  9. the end of a railroad
  10. close but inferior associates

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. c; 3. f; 4. e; 5. a; 6. d; 7. g; 8. h; 9. i; 10. j

#08-355: Ode on a Grecian Urn

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thursday, November 3, 2023

The Englishman John Keats is justly considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. He left behind around 135 poems--all the more astounding when you realize that he died of tuberculosis at the very young age of 25.

Of this considerable output, a handful have been singled out as "The Six Great Odes," all written in the same year: 1819. One of these, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," ends with two of the most-discussed lines in all of literature. But before we get to those, let's consider the content of the poem.

An ode is a type of lyric poetry meant to praise a particular subject. This one is supposedly about an ancient vase with a stereotyped set of images: a lover pursuing his beloved, people playing musical instruments, a tree, and a public sacrifice.

The main conceit of the poem is this: While the images depict more than mere words can express ("A picture is worth a thousand words," goes the proverb, and the urn "can express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme"), they are also frozen in time. The lover will forever be pursuing his beloved, the tree will never shed its leaves, the pipes--though "unheard"--are sweeter than the music we hear because they play to the spirit, not the ear. The first line calls the urn "the still unravish'd bride of quietness"--forever untouched, forever pure.

Although it's true that the "bold lover" chasing the girl can never catch her, it's also true that her beauty "cannot fade": "⁠Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

The sacrificial cow "lowing at the skies," dressed in garlands, will never actually arrive at the altar. And the worshippers who left their homes this morning to witness the sacrifice will never return to them.

There is something of the eternal in this, the poem suggests. And "When old age shall this generation waste, ⁠⁠Thou shalt remain"--unchanged, "a friend to man," and saying to him:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all

⁠⁠Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The Romans said, "Ars longa, vita brevis": Technical skill takes a long time, but life is short. One might add: the results of that skill--the art produced--outlasts many human lifetimes. In the beauty of the urn, Keats found a lasting truth.

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. altar
  2. conceit
  3. considerable
  4. depict
  5. fade
  6. garlands
  7. lowing
  8. singled out
  9. stereotyped
  10. unravished
  1. idea; metaphorical intent
  2. not attacked
  3. mooing
  4. show; portray
  5. change; become less
  6. fixed in form; conventional
  7. a place for sacrifices
  8. large
  9. named specifically
  10. strings of flowers

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. a; 3. h; 4. d; 5. e; 6. j; 7. c; 8. i; 9. f; 10. b

#08-354: John Carter of Mars

John Carter of Mars

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Most people know of Tarzan--with his visceral yell, his elegant girl Jane, and his zany buddy Cheeta the Chimpanzee--but few realize that he is not the only character from the pen of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs, in fact, wrote nearly 80 novels (26 about Tarzan alone) in the genres not only of adventure, but also fantasy, science fiction, and westerns and historical novels.

Second only to Tarzan in number and fame are the 11 novels in the "Barsoom" or "Martian" series, with their protagonist, John Carter.

In the first book in the series, "A Princess of Mars," Carter--a veteran of America's Civil War--is prospecting in Arizona, where he is chased into a sacred cave by a band of Indians.

From there he is transported to Mars; Burroughs never explains how. He meets the inhabitants, who call their planet "Barsoom," and joins a nomadic tribe of green Martians called Tharks. These are a war-like people with green skin and six limbs.

Carter--used to the greater gravity of earth's atmosphere--is stronger and more agile than the natives. This, with his experience as a Confederate officer, makes him a formidable fighter. He soon rises in the ranks of the Tharks.

In a battle with the humanoid red Martians, the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. But Carter, attracted to the girl (small wonder, since the red Martians wear no clothes, except for some jewelry) frees her from the Tharks.

This noble action puts him at odds with Martians on both sides. In addition, the red Martians occupy a federation of cities who sometimes are at war with each other. Carter leads a coalition of Tharks and the residents of Helium against the city-state of Zodanga, Helium's historic enemy.

His derring-do wins him the hand of Dejah Thoris, and he becomes Prince of Helium.

They live together happily for nine years, until the mechanism that sustains the artificial Martian atmosphere breaks down. In attempting to repair it, Carter is asphyxiated--and wakes up back on earth. He is now a wealthy man (thanks to a gold mine he discovered) but pines for his wife and his life on Mars.

Don't worry, John Carter: you'll return in several sequels--and you'll be with Dejah Thoris again!

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. asphyxiated
  2. derring-do
  3. formidable
  4. humanoid
  5. inhabitants
  6. limbs
  7. pines (for)
  8. prospecting
  9. visceral
  10. zany
  1. bravery; daring acts
  2. funny and strange
  3. deprived of air
  4. people who live somewhere
  5. impressive
  6. arms and/or legs
  7. longs (for); misses
  8. from the belly
  9. looking for gold
  10. formed like a person

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. a; 3. e; 4. j; 5. d; 6. f; 7. g; 8. i; 9. h; 10. b

#08-356: Fitzcarraldo


Thursday, November 9, 2023

There's a fine line, they say, between genius and insanity. Throughout his career, the German producer, director, and actor Werner Herzog has stood firmly astride that dichotomy.

Perhaps no film captures these two sides of his personality like the 1982 "Fitzcarraldo." The story involves moving a river boat weighing 320 tons (over 290,000 kilograms) up and over a steep hill.

Life imitates art: Herzog insisted on moving an actual boat over an actual hill, without special effects, resulting in numerous injuries and even deaths, opening Herzog to accusations of exploitation of the Amazonian natives on his crew.

The story is set in Peru in the early 20th century. An ambitious Irish immigrant, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (known locally as "Fitzcarraldo") has decided that the small city of Iquitos should host the great Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso--but needs an opera house to do so.

He leases land from the Peruvian government to harvest rubber. But it is on the Ucayali River above a long stretch of white-water rapids that effectively cuts it off from the rest of the world.

Studying a map, Fitzcarraldo sees that another river, the Pachitea, is at one point only several hundred meters away from the Ucayali. If Fitzcarraldo could get a boat onto the upper Ucayali, the rubber could be transported to the point near the Pachitea, then portaged to that river and shipped down the Amazon to the Atlantic ports.

But the space between the rivers is occupied by a hill. That means not just getting such a ship, but getting it over that hill.

His girlfriend, a wealthy brothel owner, pays for the ship. Then comes the excruciating task of getting it over the hill.

After months of mishaps, the boat is on the Ucayali. But during a drunken celebration party, a native chief cuts the boat's rope, sending it down the river and into the rapids as an offering to the river gods--seemingly his plan all along.

The ship makes it through the rapids fairly unscathed, so before selling it back to its original owner, Fitzcarraldo arranges for a European opera company (but not Caruso!) to come to Iquitos and perform on its deck for the whole city to see.

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. astride
  2. brothel
  3. deck
  4. dichotomy
  5. excruciating
  6. exploitation
  7. mishaps
  8. portaged
  9. rapids
  10. unscathed
  1. on either side of
  2. carried from one body of water to another
  3. a house of prostitution
  4. undamaged
  5. the floor of a ship
  6. extremely painful
  7. a division into two parts
  8. taking advantage of someone
  9. accidents
  10. a fast-moving part of a river

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. a; 2. c; 3. e; 4. g; 5. f; 6. h; 7. i; 8. b; 9. j; 10. d

#08-350: Oklahoma!


Thursday, October 19, 2023

Set in the "Indian Territory"--now the state of Oklahoma--in 1906, the Broadway musical "Oklahoma!" came to the stage in 1943, and to the big screen in 1955.

It features a love triangle centered on the farm girl Laurey Williams. Uppermost in her affections is the cowboy Curly McLain; but Jud Fry, her rough farmhand, also loves her.

As the story begins, Curly invites Laurey to the "box social " dance that night. In this event, the women prepare a box with lunch for two, and the men bid on them. The successful bidder has lunch with the woman the next day.

Laurey says Curly should have asked sooner. He says he will take her in a fancy carriage called a "surrey"--this one with fringe on the top. She doesn't believe him, not realizing he has already rented it.

The lonely, disturbed farmhand Jud, obsessed with Laurey, asks her to the dance. She says "yes," mainly to spite Curly. In fact, she's afraid of Jud. Another girl flirts with Curly. Laurey pretends she doesn't really care.

When Curly discovers that Laurey is going with Jud, he tries once again to convince her to go with him. But Laurey is afraid to go back on her promise to Jud, so she tells Curly that she doesn't love him.

Hurt, Curly goes to Jud's and argues about Laurey; Jud is now more than ever determined to marry Laurey.

Laurey dreams of a blissful life with Curly--but in her dream Jud kills Curly. She awakes realizing that Curly is the man she loves, but still keeps her promise and goes to the dance with Jud.

When the auction begins, Jud outbids everyone for Laurey's lunch--until Curly sells his saddle, horse, and gun to raise enough money to outbid Jud. He wins.

Jud threatens Laurey, and she fires him. Furious, he leaves. When Laurey tells Curly what has happened, he proposes to her. She accepts.

Three weeks later, the married couple celebrates the territory's impending statehood. Jud reappears, drunk. He kisses Laurey and punches Curly. As they fight, Jud produces a knife; when Curly dodges, Jud falls on the knife and dies. A makeshift trial holds Curly "not guilty," and he and Laurey ride away to their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on top.

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. affections
  2. flirts
  3. fringe
  4. furious
  5. impending
  6. makeshift
  7. obsessed with
  8. punches
  9. spite
  10. territory
  1. a loose, decorative, hanging border of thread
  2. about to happen
  3. unable to let go of
  4. not formal; unofficial
  5. hits with his fist
  6. get even with; annoy
  7. feelings (of love)
  8. an area of the U.S. that is not a state
  9. extremely angry
  10. plays around at love

Answers are in the first comment below.

Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. j; 3. a; 4. i; 5. b; 6. d; 7. c; 8. e; 9. f; 10. h