Movie Review: Small One

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to the city, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. That it never got on the networks’ annual run of Christmas specials, but Frosty the Snowman did, is part of what’s wrong with the world. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Frosty! I liked it when I was six.) Small One‘s run-time is 26 minutes, and the only character who has a name is the donkey. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, to be seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Even the Best

You have all heard the story of the first Thanksgiving, so there is, thankfully, no reason to go into it here. It was a great story once – maybe it still is – but we have heard it and its reiterations again and again. There is the Religious Version, blessing following tribulation and thanksgiving to God; there is the Patriotic Version, in which the founding of our national holiday entwines with the founding of America itself.

There is the Cheery Version, such as you might read in a brightly-colored children’s book, and the Downer Version, emphasizing that half of them were dead already and there were still hard winters to come. There are those who paint the Pilgrims as brave refugees of persecution, bequeathing a godly heritage, and those who paint them as incipient witch-burners and Indian-killers, and then along come the Fact-checkers to point out the Pilgrims didn’t really wear those hats, or eat pumpkin pie, and Thanksgiving began with Abraham Lincoln, you know …

… and finally you just want to eat your turkey without worrying about what the Pilgrims ate, or even why they ate it.

Even the best stories, with an expansive range of interpretations and a multiplicity of retellings, can grow stale. In fiction, what recurs are not whole stories but certain elements – the romance, the quest, the tropeschosen hero, the mentor, rags-to-riches and David against Goliath. In a good mood, we call these tropes or archetypes; in a less generous mood, stereotypes or cliches.

Although I know how sheer repetition can wear a thing down to banality and even irritation, I tend to be sympathetic toward books accused of cliched plots or overdone tropes. When the critics say, with worldly ennui, “It’s been done before,” I think: Of course it’s been done before. Everything’s been done before. All the original stories were discovered by Adam and Eve, and the rest of us just experiment with variations on a theme.

In the matter of tropes, readers must again mark the line between “a bad book” and “a book I dislike.” Most tropes – even most cliches – are perfectly decent in themselves. A portal into another world is a wonderful idea; if I’m tired of it, that probably says more about me than about the trope. I’ve complained about the predictability of romance novels (Are they going to fall in love even though they seem to hate each other? Yes, they are! And now they have problems? Didn’t see that one coming). But humanity must tell love stories, and the characters will fall in love and they will have problems, and I have no quarrel with the genre. I just pass by.

The ridiculed tropes of speculative fiction, such as the world-saving quest and the chosen hero, have – even as romance does – deep roots in the real experiences and even realer dreams of humanity. Tropes do as a rule. Often, tropes are not enjoyed, whether because the reader has lost (or never acquired) the taste for it or because the writer has forgotten that even when it is the same theme, it should still be a different variation. But the mere presence of a trope is rarely to be criticized.

So remember that, for all the times it’s been told, the story of the first Thanksgiving truly is a good one. And if anyone tells you that the Pilgrims didn’t have potatoes, tell them that what really matters is that the Pilgrims didn’t have Black Friday sales, either.

Beside the Point

Not long ago, I was reading a review of a new album, released by a Christian artist who was known for his edginess and is now, perhaps, over the edge. The reviewer said (here I roughly, but accurately, paraphrase) that he had always liked this artist because he used raw words just to rile up evangelicals. And I thought that this was not truly a noble endorsement.

And it’s not because of the words he used, or because people were upset or offended, or because evangelicals were upset or offended (though I do think that, on the long road of learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, not taking positive pleasure in seeing each other offended is one step). As a reason to approve of anything, Look, he offends them! possesses doubtful worth. It seems a superficial judgment at best, an uncharitable motive at worst.

It’s unfortunate, then, that these days, it’s all around us. People have made lucrative careers of giving offense. In Exhibit 1,873 of our current societal dysfunction, certain citizens of this republic value most, in their elected officials, a demonstrated ability to offend their fellow citizens. You don’t have to look far in the broader culture to find the same impulse, to see real appreciation of the writer or artist or celebrity who offends the right people. In art, too, transgressing other people’s boundaries is often taken as a pleasure, and sometimes as an end in itself.

I understand the phenomenon; it’s all human nature, even if not the best part of it. We have all known people so annoying that they almost deserved to be offended. We have all seen boundaries so misdrawn that they deserved to be transgressed. No matter who you are, someone out there has sensibilities that are, by your measure, so hopelessly narrow or warped that they are begging to be offended. This judgment of others’ boundaries and sensibilities must, in some cases, be false. By the same rule of logic, it must, in some cases, be true. So if the sensibilities are narrow and the boundaries are skewed, isn’t there some value in offending them?

No, not intrinsically. It doesn’t follow that, because the boundaries are wrong, the offense is right. In this, as in other disputes, it is not possible that everyone is right, but it is possible that everyone is wrong. One can be politically incorrect by telling the truth, but one can also be politically incorrect by being a jerk; one can violate Victorian sensibilities in art by being better than they would permit, but also by being worse. The idea of offending the right people is tribal and superficial. Beyond the superficiality lies the lack of charity. It’s not charitable to enjoy upsetting or offending other people, nor is it worthy as an aim. What do you really achieve by bothering people?

Offense, as such, has very little meaning; it proves neither right nor wrong. As an insignificant thing, it ought to be incidental to what you are really doing. Tell the truth, or pursue artistic superiority – and perhaps people will be offended and perhaps not, but neither will be the point.

Prism Tours: This is not a Werewolf Story


On Tour with Prism Book Tours.

Book Blitz for
This is Not a Werewolf Story
By Sandra Evans

This Middle Grade Fantasy is perfect for Halloween! Full of fun and mystery, and set at a boarding school where everything isn’t quite as it seems. Read the excerpt and enter the giveaway below…

This Is Not a Werewolf StoryThis is Not a Werewolf Story
by Sandra Evans
Middle Grade Fantasy
Hardcover & ebook, 352 pages
July 26th 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This is the story of Raul, a boy of few words, fewer friends, and almost no family. He is a loner—but he isn’t lonely. All week long he looks after the younger boys at One Of Our Kind Boarding School while dodging the barbs of terrible Tuffman, the jerk of a gym teacher.

Like every other kid in the world, he longs for Fridays, but not for the usual reasons. As soon as the other students go home for the weekend, Raul makes his way to a lighthouse deep in the heart of the woods. There he waits for sunset—and the mysterious, marvelous phenomenon that allows him to go home, too. But the woods have secrets . . . and so does Raul. When a new kid arrives at school, they may not stay secret for long.

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

This is the chapter where the new kid runs so fast, Raul decides to talk

New kid. New kid. The words fly around the showers and sinks. I can almost see them, flying up like chickadees startled from the holly tree in the woods.

All the boys are in the big bathroom on the second floor, washing up before breakfast. The littlest kids stand on tiptoe to peek out the windows that look onto the circle driveway.

I pick Sparrow up and hold him so he can see. He’s the littlest of the littles but the kid is dense–like a ton of bricks.

I can’t believe my eyes. No kid has ever come to the school on the back of a Harley. Not in all the years I’ve been here, and I’ve been here longer than anyone. The driver spins the back wheel and a bunch of gravel flies up.

The new kid is holding onto the waist of the driver. He must have a pretty good grip because the driver looks over his shoulder and tries to peel the kid’s fingers away one by one. Then the driver takes off his helmet. We all gasp, because it turns out the driver is a lady with long straight black hair.

Next to me Mean Jack whistles. “What a doll!”

Mean Jack thinks he’s a mobster. A made man, that’s what he calls himself. I call him a numbskull, but not out loud.

About the Author

Sandra Evans is a writer and teacher from the Pacific Northwest. Her forthcoming middle grade novel, This is Not a Werewolf Story (Simon & Schuster July 2016), was inspired by her favorite 12th century French tale, Bisclavret, by Marie de France. Born in Washington state, Sandra spent her childhood on U.S. Navy bases from Florida to Hawaii, and returned to the Northwest as a teenager. Since then, she has lived and traveled in France and Europe, but has never strayed far for long from the Puget Sound region.

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Through Uncanny Valley

“But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that is going to be Human and isn’t yet, or used to be Human once and isn’t now, or ought to be Human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I should say, in fairness, that every type of story opens windows on human nature. I hope I can add with accuracy, if not objectivity, that speculative fiction holds a special ability to highlight certain of humanity’s psychological quirks. It highlights, for example, the psychological quirk that humans are unnerved by things that ought to be human and don’t quite make it, both pretend-humans and ex-humans.

The horror genre makes the most hay of this phenomenon, what with zombies and vampires and ghosts – all ex-humans, in one way or another. It would be appropriate, given the season, to focus on horror and its almost epic exploitation, and thus illumination, of humanity’s dread of the almost-human. But I won’t, because I have never really liked any ghost story since A Christmas Carol, and I hate zombies beyond my power of expression, and although the memories will someday mercifully fade, vampires inevitably call up Twilight.

Other forms of speculative fiction make milder appeals to the same uneasiness. C.S. Lewis wove it into the White Witch. Folk lore and fairy tales, the progenitors of modern speculative fiction, have their own examples (including ghosts, of course, but I’m still not going to talk about them). Among the most compelling examples is that of the hollow women: beautiful and smiling, but their backs are hollow. At their worst, they are malevolent seductresses, and pitiless even when they are harmless. Changelings, both infant and adult, are in their own way even more sinister: The cold, creeping feeling of a stranger who should be human can’t match the horror of a loved one who isn’t.

Science fiction has made its own variation of the theme. The (in)famous Pod People are only a refitted version of changelings, replicas all the more chilling for their precision. Sci-fi has accumulated standbys and tropes for things that are, in Lewis’ words, going to be human and aren’t yet: aliens that sham humanity, human bodies hijacked by parasites, robots that are human at the first glance and not at the second.

Robots merit particular attention because here science caught up with fiction. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, theorized nearly fifty years ago that robots, approaching human likeness but not quite reaching it, would fall into the uncanny valley. In the uncanny valley, both too much and not enough like humans, robots provoke unease and revulsion. Mori speculated that our “eerie sensation” is an instinct that protects us from the proximal dangers of corpses and members of different species. Some think it may be triggered by the dissonance between the human and inhuman mingled together.

Whether dissonance, survival instinct, or a deeper, more mysterious instinct, the phenomenon is real. There is a queasy line between us and not-us, between human and once-human. We felt it in our stories long before scientists labeled it.

Once Upon A(nother) Time

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away … fairy tales happen. It’s the best place for it, too; anything can happen there.

The classic fairy tale opening, like the classic fairy tale ending (happily ever after), is more than form. It is substance, part of what a fairy tale is meant to be. Once upon a time could be any time, and a land far away could be anywhere, and that is the point. Unbound by specifics, free of all the maps and history books, fairy tales are timeless and universal.

It is easy, in fact, to avoid specifics, though not everyone can do so with equal art. Sid Fleischman managed the fairy tale universality with unusual elegance in The Whipping Boy, which opens, “The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat …”

A lesser writer would have said that the young prince was known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat – “the kingdom” being where every fairy tale takes place, if it doesn’t take place in the forest. The kingdom is invariably ruled by The King, The Queen, and usually by The Prince, even when the heroine marries him. (Names are part of the frivolous small talk dispensed with in fairy tale romance, which goes from first sight to lifelong commitment in less time than it takes the average person to choose dinner off a menu.)

Disney is, of course, a passing master of such conventions. In its live-action Cinderella – which is, if you count right, its latest fairy tale – Disney added a new touch of universality that, while probably unintentional, is brilliant. Cinderella, though among the most archetypal of European fairy tales, was gifted with a multiracial cast, and it feels all the more universal for that. Disney followed the same policy in the new Beauty and the Beast, but having haphazardly mixed the fairy tale up with history, the effect is jarring more than anything else.

The creative decision to anchor Beauty and the Beast to history was not necessarily a bad one, but it illustrates the meaning of once upon a time. There is power hidden in fairy tale simplicity. By gliding airily beyond the real world, fairy tales set the forgiving terms on which they are to be taken. They spurn details and outrun cross-examination. Meanwhile, the more factual approach of the quasi-historical Beauty and the Beast begs for cross-examination. It makes you wonder: Is it possible that the French Catholic Church (a state church!) was ordaining black priests three hundred years ago? Were spinsters turned out to beg in the streets, honestly? What made the Prince a prince? If he was collecting taxes, why didn’t anybody notice when he stopped? Shouldn’t the townspeople have been holding parades and throwing confetti in the air to celebrate their tax-free existence? Does anybody in the entire Disney corporation realize that a thousand years before Belle blazed her feminist trail, Charlemagne set up schools in France that educated girls?

A historical film or novel could answer these questions. A fairy tale doesn’t have to. We can wonder if the eighteenth-century France we are seeing is the eighteenth-century France that really was, because there is an answer to that question. There is no answer, and no question, of whether we are seeing a true portrayal of a far-away land, once upon a time.

And so fairy tales, placeless and timeless, tell their stories beyond the reach of such concerns. Once upon a time, Cinderella danced, and Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold, and Snow White ate the apple and Rapunzel let down her hair …

Review: Beauty and the Beast (the Other One)

(Yes, I know: I’m six months late to this party. But that is how long it took them to put the movie on Netflix.)

In 1991, Disney released a magnificent version of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”. Then they released another version.

Disney’s decision to remake Beauty and the Beast as a live-action film was always questionable for two reasons. One, the story is intrinsically suited to animation, and two, the original film is so close to perfection that it leaves little room for remaking. But all things are possible, and these hurdles might have been jumped.

One of the special powers of animation is that it can make things whimsical or agreeable that, realistically, are not. Beauty and the Beast needs this power, both for the Beast and his servants. The living household objects, rendered realistic in the new version, are all exquisite. They also have about an ounce of the charm and vibrancy of their animated counterparts. Worse, they make you think that it would be kind of creepy if your coffee cup had eyes and your dresser liked to pick out your outfits.

The change from animation to live-action would not matter so much – if more significant changes had deflected comparison. And here we come to the second pitfall, which the new Beauty and the Beast plunges right into: Why remake a movie that was already nearly perfect? To make it different – not necessarily better but different in a true and interesting way. That is the successful way to remake a great film. There are two ways to fail – make it too much the same and make it different in a bad way. Disney manages both.

Beauty and the Beast reproduces its predecessor’s plot, its songs, and its most iconic shots and scenes. To its credit, the film does innovate in smaller matters. To its discredit, it innovates badly. It reshuffles events and characterization in ways that are often puzzling and invariably damaging. Its original ideas are slight and usually poor.

The Beast is a much reduced figure in this second outing. He is less of a beast, for one: physically smaller, more tame in temperament, more human in appearance, lacking the mouth full of fangs and the animalistic power and agility of the old Beast. The first Beast literally roared; the second huffs and puffs. The first Beast had a violent, mercurial temper; the second is mostly just dyspeptic. The first Beast had sudden shifts into realization and regret; the second … no.

Gaston receives a kinder, gentler, and ultimately scrambled characterization. His buffoonery and presumption are sanded down significantly, and his worst moments in the first half of the film are excised. Then, as if suddenly in the throes of some psychotic break, he resorts to murder. After that, Gaston loses all initiative. His maneuver to clap Maurice into the insane asylum is no longer a sinister scheme to blackmail Belle into marriage; neither does he incite the mob against the Beast out of jealousy and offended pride. Both acts are merely defensive and desperate attempts to hide his crime.

The servants-turned-household-objects fare worst of all. Their warm (even enthusiastic!) welcome of Maurice is eliminated, and it matters because their welcome of Belle is so suspect. They adopt the peculiar habit of declaring selfish motivations for acts of apparent kindness. (Why does Lumiere – it’s not the Beast in this version – get Belle out of the dungeon? So he can kiss the maid again!) They sing “Be Our Guest” not because Belle wanders into the kitchen saying she’s hungry but because they realize she’s planning an escape. When Belle flees, doors slam and lock, the dog rears up and barks at her – it looks like a jail break, and they’re the prison guards. Incompetent ones, but still.

As for new ideas, Disney did decide to give Belle a shamelessly maudlin back story. The Beast has a sob story, too, and he and Belle bond over shared childhood trauma, and it’s all very dreary. Disney also anchors the story to a particular time and place, shifting it away from fairy tale and into history. Then it fumbles the history, and drops it, and steps on it. Disney clearly sends out the message, “This is eighteenth-century France! Btw, we have no idea what eighteen-century France was like, and we don’t care, either.”

The movie has its good points. The technical skill is obvious, and the film treats us to some beautiful vistas. The re-imagining of Maurice and Gaston has merit, whatever the flaws in execution. There is talent in the cast. But the new Beauty and the Beast is inevitably heir to the old one, and it neither breaks from its legacy nor upholds it. Fans of the movie say that there are many versions of Beauty and the Beast, and that’s true. But the precise trouble is that this movie is not a version of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale; it’s a version of Beauty and the Beast (1991) – and a worse one. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is so notably like Beauty and the Beast (1991), and yet so notably inferior, that there is hardly even a point.

An Unheralded Significance

Show me a person who thinks that the Old Testament is only tales for children, and I will show you a person who hasn’t read the Old Testament. I am not referring principally to the fact that a lot of material in the Old Testament isn’t exactly family-friendly, though that is true. The larger point is that the Bible has far beyond enough to challenge and satisfy a grown-up intellect. Even the stories, the straightforward part of the Old Testament, hold more complexity and depth than is quickly unlocked.

A lot of people miss it, and not only children. One reason for this, of course, is that many people don’t really read the Bible. Another reason is that the style of the narrative (as opposed to the poetry and the prophecy) is concise and businesslike and occasionally so understated you can only marvel. You have to work harder reading it because many things will not be spelled out. It’s plain, for example, that Esther and Xerxes did not have a monogamous marriage – if you catch the devil in the details. (Many people don’t. This contributes to the popular misbelief that the Book of Esther is a beautiful love story.)

One of my favorite examples of this unheralded significance comes at the very end of 1 Samuel. It concerns King Saul (as so much in 1 Samuel does) and how he was buried by the men of Jabesh Gilead. Saul and three of his sons died in a battle with the Philistines. The Philistines – this is pretty much the textbook definition of being a bad winner – then pinned their bodies to the wall of a city. And this is how the story ends:

When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31)

And you know at once that it was kind of them, but there is more beauty here than is readily apparent.

Jabesh Gilead played another, much earlier role in Saul’s story. His first true act as king was rescuing the people of Jabesh Gilead from an invader who had planned, after conquering the city, to gouge out the right eye of every man in it. Most debts are forgotten after forty years, but the men of Jabesh repaid the debt of the kindness Saul had shown them. Saul’s bread finally returned to him on the waters.

There is poetry in the fact that Saul’s reign, which began with him showing kindness to Jabesh Gilead, ended with Jabesh Gilead showing kindness to him. And it is all the more poignant because it is the last word in Saul’s story. There are few stories in the Bible darker or more tragic than Saul’s – the long descent, into murder and insanity and futile clawing to keep what God had given away. He had the peculiar torture of knowing the truth and not being helped by it. His last few chapters are filled with horror and despair, with the sense of being finally rejected by God and going helplessly into the end.

And then, to finish the story, the brave gratitude of the men of Jabesh – an act that looked wistfully back to a better past, a repayment of an old, old good deed that murmurs that Saul hadn’t wasted quite everything after all.

It is not redemption, not so little and so late. But it is a note of grace, at the very end.

Promises, Promises

Let’s talk about promises. To narrow the field, let’s talk about the promises the producers of culture make to us regarding their shows and movies and books.

Now, I don’t mean advertising slogans (BEST OF THE YEAR), which are not promises so much as exercises in hope and hype. I mean the implicit promises of genre, or brand, or whatever label under which a work takes up residence. These promises are made (of course!) in the interest of profit; if they get us to believe, they get us to buy. But once we believe and buy, they end up bound to their brands. The power of brand is a conservative force and resists change – including from readers and writers wanting something new in Christian publishing. (Incidentally, that is a preview. We will end at Christian publishing, but we’re taking the long way around, like they did before the Federal Highway-Aid Act.)

A brand is identity in shorthand and infinitely useful in this capitalistic world of choices. When you are so unfortunate as to be driving cross-country, do you stop to eat at small, unknown restaurants in small, unknown towns, thus exploring the rich variety of our great country and supporting hard-working small-business owners?

Of course not. You might get disappointed. You might get lost. You might get salmonella. What you do is, you watch the FOOD signs and get off the interstate when you see the logo of a chain restaurant that strikes you as good or, at any rate, acceptable. I’ve seen critical social commentary of this, but it’s only good sense. The selection off the highway sign of corporate logos is a selection based on knowledge, and if you’re not thrilled about getting a mediocre hamburger from McDonald’s, you won’t really be disappointed, either. Because you knew what to expect.

To teach people what to expect is the triumph of brand, and quite profitable when the expectations are good. What follows such triumph is an effort to preserve the brand and fulfill expectations. Disney, for example, has released most of its PG-13 fare and all of its R-rated fare under its Touchstone label. The more auspicious Disney label is reserved for gentler, kinder movies, movies fit for children. This is not a moral decision or an expression of values. Disney knows that its brand is a promise of movies that, while rarely without a dose of pathos, will never be too edgy or dark. Violate that too often or too egregiously, and see how many parents will be buying theater tickets on no other grounds than “it’s Disney”.

The same principle is manifest in publishing. Del Rey isn’t going to be releasing cozy mysteries with titles like Lemon Meringue Madness, and if you’re waiting for Harlequin to publish a six-hundred page literary novel with allusions in the original French and a textured analysis of symbolic-interactionist theory, I hope you’re a patient soul. That’s not what they’re about, and their readers know it.

And what is Christian publishing about? What promises does it make? To many readers, one of its most crucial promises is that it will be clean – that they can get the story they want without the unsavory content they don’t. All such readers could doubtless find books in the secular market they would enjoy, but the finding is so much easier in the Christian market. They expect that Christian publishers will adhere to certain standards, and depend on it.

Readers who want different standards, or even exceptions to the old ones, may be asking for more than they know. New standards and too many exceptions do something dangerous. They break the brand. They break the promise.

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

It is the rare but glorious lot of writers to create a cultural icon that lasts generations, one of those things that everybody just knows even if they’re not sure how. Tarzan is one such icon. Who doesn’t know the image of the handsome, wild, muscular man swinging through the jungle with the agility of an ape? Sometimes there’s a girl in his arm, but to tell the truth, she’s not really necessary.

Like many such icons, Tarzan has been unmoored from his ultimate source. Everybody knows Tarzan, but most haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I picked up Tarzan of the Apes, I was driven more by curiosity than the hope of a good story.

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912, and a century is more than enough to make a novel historically interesting. Even the novels that were radical unconsciously reflect the ideas and attitudes of their era (no one lives entirely free of his time). In this respect, Tarzan is interesting, even though what it reflects can be quite bad. The crude racist stereotypes are obvious blemishes, but the more subtle eugenicist ideas are the same poison – refined and intellectualized and so more pernicious.

This book surprised me. It is darker and more violent than I anticipated, with a surprising dose of cannibalism from both white and black characters. Tarzan’s jungle divides itself pitilessly into killer and killed, and he himself is a wholehearted participant. Most of the characters, of whatever race or species, are scum. At the same time, it is far more thoughtful than I would have guessed. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Burroughs uses fiction to explore an idea. He takes up the nature vs. nurture debate by putting a child of the best hereditary (in an eugenicist touch, the son of English aristocrats) in the worst environment (raised by savage apes in a virgin jungle).

To Burroughs’ credit, he doesn’t offer a quick, cut-and-dried answer. Tarzan, the subject of his fictional experiment, is deeply influenced by both hereditary and environment. At the same time, Burroughs’ treatment of the question is generally unconvincing, occasionally ridiculous, and undermined by eugenicist assumptions. Burroughs explicitly grounds the explanation of Tarzan’s superhuman physicality in evolution, in the logic that human muscles and senses atrophied as we learned to rely on reason and would rejuvenate in an environment that demanded it for survival, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy that Tarzan’s aristocratic genes made him instinctively gracious or chivalrous, or that he could become fluent in any language quickly. In a very real way, Tarzan of the Apes is a book of ideas. It’s just that the ideas are mostly claptrap.

As much as eugenics, as an idea, deserves to die, its presence in Tarzan is part of the novel’s scientific bent. So, too, are the references to evolution, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the way an important plot point turns on this new thing, fingerprinting. If you don’t know what that is, the book explains it. A good part of the book’s darkness comes from its more realistic portrayal of apes in particular and African jungles in general. The portrayal is not really scientific; Burroughs attributes to the apes a language (however limited) and customs and laws (however savage). But unlike Disney’s Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which were developed out of a desire for fun, child-friendly stories with animals that talk and sing and occasionally even dance, Burroughs’ jungle society was developed in the spirit of the real jungle. The apes in this novel are violent, but so are apes in real life.

To take Tarzan of the Apes strictly as art, the plot was well-constructed and the author unafraid of making decisive change in his hero and story. The love story, for once, was not completely predictable. The old professors were funny. I was still ready for the book to end in the neighborhood of page 150, and I got tired of the phrase “forest god”.

Not much of the real Tarzan of the apes survives in his icon – not his propensity to kill, his blue blood, his superhuman strength. But the image of him in his jungle is enduring. Tarzan of the Apes may be good fare for those interested in culture, history, and old-fashioned pulp romps. Reader discernment is needed, however, and the novel is emphatically not for children.