Archive for the ‘Mythology’ Category

Solitaire and Christmas films


©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶You have my permission to skip this post. Just realize all the while that you probably will have missed something that someday might have helped you significantly.

Where’s the queen of hearts?

¶I have a confession to make in my cyberspatial confessional. I’m addicted to the Internet game “Yukon Solitaire”. It could be worse, I guess, if I had a smartphone. I saw on the Internet today that many Americans are addicted to that device, which I don’t have; just have a cheap old flip-phone. I tried a smartphone a year ago, but it didn’t respond to my fingers accurately enough, had a bunch of apps that I couldn’t afford to use, and ran out of juice too quickly.
¶But back to the solitaire. I know what many well-meaning folks will say: “Be happy! Playing solitaire can keep your brain rejuvenated! Keep you from becoming senile.”
¶That well may be, but I view playing the stupid game a major waste of time. I could be writing the “Great American Novel” or drawing masterpieces. Instead, I gaze at my monitor’s screen and try to determine if there is some magic strategy for attaining the “perfect win”. And that’s what I actually call it: “the perfect win”. It’s when I can get all the cards in their proper columns and complete down to at least the number “3” cards. Of course it is quite possible (and usual) to win when I’ve had to move several lower cards up to the top, but that’s just a “win”, not a “perfect win”.
¶I must admit that, besides the supposed benefit of keeping my brain active, playing “Yukon Solitaire” has revealed to me some interesting facts of life and facets of my personality. Probably the profoundest fact is that losing is as important an element of playing Yukon Solitaire — or, for that matter, any game — as winning. If I won every game or even several games in a row, boredom would quickly descend upon me. Of course, the opposite is also true: whenever I lose too many games sequentially I become frustrated and irritated and I resolve (for a day) to give up the game. But then that old lust to play returns and there I am before the computer again.
¶A year or so ago, I heard on one of the NPR talk shows a woman who had written a book (or maybe it was just an article) about how people can learn much about their own psyches from playing “Scrabble®”. I played that game only once, many years ago, and it bored me so much I never ventured into it again, so I didn’t listen very long to the radio conversation. However, I did attend enough to gather that it must be possible, indeed, to discover a lot about one’s personality and perhaps even improve it by playing Scrabble® and other such games.
¶Another thing I learned about the Yukon Solitaire game is that the outcome is not as much a matter of chance as in the original solitaire game. The player can calculate odds of moving certain cards as opposed to moving others at times when mutually excludable options exist. Also, one can begin to gauge which rows demand more attention because, if too neglected, they contain too many uncovered cards near the game’s end. Naturally, those rows tend to be the last three. Yet another insight is noticing that one’s odds of winning are proportional to the balance of red and black cards at the opening.
¶I could go on with my insights, but I don’t want to tempt my readers to try the game; for it truly is addictive, and I don’t want to be responsible for your fall.

* * * * * *

O Merry…Merry…something or other

¶While I’m still in the confessional, I guess I might as well admit to having spent a bunch of hours over several weeks in November and December watching Hallmark Channel’s massive array of Christmas romance movies. Even beyond the twelve days of Christmas.
¶It was all part of my attempt — only slightly successful — to escape the pall of gloom that fell over me and millions of my fellow citizens following the November 8 election. I was trying to avoid the news programs, which, in my case, is very difficult because I am something of a news and political junkie. I’m only a nominal Christian: a fellow who no longer attends a church and does not adhere to the Apostle’s Creed. Nor have I paid much attention to Christmas in decades. But this time I wanted to escape into some kind of cheery mythical world. And I found a bunch of that in several of those movies. Of course some were rather saccharine, but others were worth the viewing.
¶When one watches a series of films all pretty much about the same motif, one picks up on common elements. Two of the most common themes in the Hallmark Christmas movies are (1) the Scrooge theme, and (2) the real Santa theme. If you have seen the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street”, you might recall that it contained both themes.
¶I am using “the Scrooge theme” rather broadly here, meaning that the storyline presents a case of a person who loved Christmas as a child but, due to some unfortunate experience in the past, now either denigrates or ignores it. The protagonist is not a “Scrooge” in the sense of being selfish or inhumane, although some might be business executives more intent on making money than on sharing cheerful hours with others. One, for instance, was the story of a developer who wanted to convert a building that, on one floor, had housed a music therapy center. In another, rather preposterous story — even by fictional standards — the reindeer Dancer is too ill to fly on Christmas Eve — so Mrs. Claus sends the North Pole’s handler in cognito to buy a replacement at a reindeer farm; when the farm’s owner declines to sell, she orders the handler to steal a reindeer. (Don’t be concerned: Mrs. Claus finally recognizes her fault and the whole situation is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.) In yet another, a Christmas tree farmer is about to lose his place because, due to bad weather, his crops have not sold well during the past two years, and the banker is set to foreclose on him; but he is saved by the story’s heroine, a business arbitrator, who convinces the banker to extend the loan.
¶By far the most fascinating of the stories, however, is the fantasy tale of a nurse in 1945 who has not heard from her soldier husband. She worries that he is possibly a war fatality. After a few early scenes in which she reveals her charitable good nature, the nurse drives home during a blizzard and runs off the road into a ditch. After she crawls out of the ditch she stumbles through the snow to storage building, climbs through a window, and falls asleep. In the morning she goes to a local police station for help, but on the way she doesn’t recognize any of the vehicles on the road. During her interview with the police, they suspect that she has suffered some brain damage. Eventually, she comes to realize that she is in the 21st century, not the 20th. The police chief takes her home to spend Christmas with him and his family, and to further examine her to see is she is mentally off or perhaps is playing a confidence game. Through some ingenious detective work, the policeman concludes that she really has time-traveled; and the problem now is how to get her back to 1945.
¶I won’t take up the necessary time or space to explain it all, but the nurse’s situation involves a comet that passed by Earth in December 1945 and is scheduled to also pass it this December. So that policeman and the community — which has come to appreciate her because she has reminded them of their long forgotten customs of caroling and hanging Christmas lights on the town gazebo — accompany her to the storage building. She goes inside; and, after the crowd watches the comet pass overhead, they open the door to find she is no longer there. The last scene in the movie is of her shoveling the packed snow from in front of her car and her husband, in uniform and a duffel bag over his shoulder, showing up to help her.
¶Yeah, pretty far out but still heart-warming.
¶And now I, too, am back in the real world. Alas!


A Retrospective of Valentine Day Essays

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All rights Reserved.

Well, no, the doldrums have not gone away already. On top of that, now I have a sinus infection to cope with.

Still, Valentine’s Day is almost on top of us; and, as usual, I feel I must say something concerning that fateful day. There’s a tone about this period of the month that appears to have a most negative effect on my health and attitude; I just had that insight a few minutes ago while I was gathering the URLs below: I seem to endure a low energy level around February 14, so I dig up old newspaper columns I have written and publish them here in “The Vanity Mirror”, in lieu of fresh writings.

I no longer spruce myself up for Valentine’s Day, no longer call a girlfriend…because there is no girlfriend. As Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) wrote in one of his best poems, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”. It’s all part of the territory, along with a broken tooth, graying hair, an overly stout midsection…and an empty pocket. An ebullient personality and scintillating conversation cannot make up for all those deficits.

Nonetheless, you folks can still find something to peruse about Valentine’s Day in my “archives”; and, just for this year, I have made the reading easier for you by pulling together the URLs for those essays: here they are; enjoy!

Be sweet to your Valentine…if you have one!



Strong, Foolish Heroes


Der Gerblendete Simson “Samson Blinded” by Lovis Corinth (1912) : Google Art Project

© 2015 By Bob Litton

Yesterday I received in the mail a book  I had ordered. It was Fredrick Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. This book, the latest of four editions published since 1922, virtually immediately became recognized as the sine qua non of Beowulfian studies and has pretty much remained so to date, although many scholars have debated some of its premises since 1922. Even Klaeber continued to work on revisions for years afterwards. Nonetheless, much basic material remains in it that no one expects will ever be superseded.

I had to buy Klaeber’s book when I signed up for the course in Old English at Southern Methodist University in 1967. I no longer have that volume, for I sold it years ago to a used book store for a pittance of its actual value. (I have sold many of my books, read and unread, upon moving from one town to another.) When I first glanced at the Klaeber, I saw it as daunting, but later it appeared to me as simply challenging. Anyway, I had wanted to study Old English (also referred to as “Anglo-Saxon”), and that desire was strong enough to dilute any threat of difficulty. To take the course, however, one had to enroll in the English master’s degree program. Although I felt I could learn anything else about English literature on my own and was not really interested in pursuing another diploma, I signed up for the entire program. I concede, though, that this ol’ professional student still viewed academia as more enticing than the tax office at Dallas City Hall, where I was working at the time.

But I see I am straying from my topic. Pardon me, dear reader. I will return to Beowulf later.

As a child I hungered for heroes. You would waste your time asking me why, for I haven’t the faintest notion. I believe it all started in 1949 when Mama took me downtown to see the film Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. I’m not sure that was a very wise move on Mama’s part, because it depicted male-female relationships in a very negative light. Those definitely were not the years of women’s lib! Luckily, I did not have to contend with female barbers until well into manhood. However, being a young boy eager for a future of adventure and renown, I concentrated more on Samson than on Delilah…at the time. Most of you will be acquainted with the story, so I won’t recite it here; if you have not read the folk tale and are interested enough, check out chapters 13-16 of “Judges” in the Old Testament; it’s not long. After I saw that movie, I had to relate the story to my playmates and re-enact the part of Samson pressing against the temple’s pillars, bringing the whole place crashing down upon the Philistines. I even prayed to God that he would allow me to be a Nazirite, just like Samson, and, especially, as strong as my hero. Well, you can imagine how long that fantasy lasted.

Despite my disenchantment with biblical literature in general, there remain some parts of the Bible that I still admire or at least fondly recall: one of them is the story of Samson. You see, a more mature reading of the story revealed to me what a dunderhead, what a disappointment for his people Samson was. Yet, in the film (not in the Bible) Samson experiences a moment of recognition: Just before the Philistines blind him with a heated sword, he prays to God, saying, “My eyes did turn away from you . . . Now you take away my sight, so that I may see again more clearly.” I don’t recall how I responded to that line when I was nine years old, but it struck me as quite profoundly spiritual, even poetic, when I viewed the film on VHS recently. (I had bought a copy through a local video store.)

In fact, I now see that film in an even more favorable, though not as childlike, way than I did in 1949. The script seems almost as though it had been written for an opera, it is so concise and dramatic, both in the soft, romantic scenes and in the rousing action scenes. And I still love Hedy Lamarr. Samson’s film character, too, is more plausible, more sympathetic than the biblical one: in the latter, his numerous, mostly petty exhibitions of strength and the dimwittedness of his responses to Delilah’s repetitive cajoling reduce his stature as a tribal leader. My mature appreciation of the story, as Cecil B. DeMille told it, is on a higher level than the boy’s perception.

The story of Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) is very similar, but the Greek demigod is a bit more self-aware than Samson. His feats of strength are, for the most part, assigned to him; and his moments of weakness, such as when he gets drunk at Admetus’ house, just while—unbeknownst to our hero—his host is mourning the death of his wife Alcestis, are usually accidental or beyond Heracles’ control. After Heracles learns the facts of the case, he becomes remorseful and takes it upon himself to descend into Hades, wrestles Death into surrendering Alcestis, and returns the queen to her astonished husband. The late classicist Edith Hamilton summed up Heracles’ character this way:

“There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone is dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match. That is the portrait of Hercules.” (Mythology, Chapter 11)

Heracles’ story, too, is more tragic than Samson’s; for he kills his wife and children during a period of madness brought upon him through a magic spell cast by Zeus’ wife Hera. Still, I think everybody agrees that Heracles was not very bright. He never was a hero for me.

I can say the same for Richard Wagner’s romantic hero Siegfried, whom I introduce in this essay partly because I love hearing the late Anna Russell’s satirical description of him. In this third music drama of Wagner’s magnum opus, Ring of the Nibelungen, “Siegfried”, our hero is the lover of Brunnhilde, one of eight Valkyries (those armored equestrian women who flit about over a battlefield, gather up dead heroic warriors, and tote them up to Valhalla). There is a huge difference in the character of Siegfried when compared to either Samson or Beowulf, for Wagner presents him from the beginning as stupid, in fact so stupid that he cannot feel the emotion of fear: he doesn’t know what fear is, but he knows it exists and he has an overwhelming desire to understand it so that he can feel it. In other respects, he is pretty much like Samson and Beowulf.

In her hilarious “analysis” of The Ring of the Nibelungen, Anna Russell describes Siegfried this way: “He’s very young, he’s very handsome, he’s very strong, he’s very brave…and he’s very stupid. He’s a regular Li’l Abner type.” Here is the current URL to Ms. Russell’s performance; I, of course, cannot predict how long it will be active:

Now let’s return to Beowulf. This epic, believed to have been composed sometime between the 6th and the 8th centuries, is similar to the Ring cycle in that it is at least partly derived from Germanic mythology, especially with its inclusion of an extraordinarily strong hero, a dragon, and a heavy emphasis on gold and the lust to possess it.

A different Weltanschauung pervades the Beowulf, however, a primitive mixture of the Germanic warrior code and Christianity. I won’t go into the world-view element in detail here; I will simply point out that it is exemplified in two kings: Hrothgar and Beowulf. Both kings battle enemies to protect their peoples, rule justly, generously reward their faithful followers with gold rings and gems,  are sympathetic toward the sufferings of others, and are magnanimous. And, in accordance with the code, Beowulf urges Hrothgar not to mourn the loss of his favorite retainer but to avenge his murder: revenge is more effective than grief.

Unlike Hrothgar, though, Beowulf has been gifted with super-human physical power: he allegedly possesses the strength of thirty ordinary men. In the poem, he wins a long-distance swimming match with a companion named Brecca and kills two troll-like water monsters in his youth and then a dragon in his old age. The whole epic is considered by most critics to be a mirror of what a good ruler should aspire to be; we might contrast it with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Comparing  Samson, Heracles, Siegfried, and Beowulf, I note the over-weening self-confidence of all four: Samson was certain he could ward off the Philistines even after his hair had been cut; Heracles had a contempt for Death, which he eventually had to force upon himself; Siegfried’s over-whelming lust for learning how to fear is one of the most comical depictions of stupidity I have ever read; Beowulf lost some of his warriors to the maws of Grendel and Grendel’s mother because he had led them to Heorot even though he intended to combat the demon unassisted.

There are numerous insights one can pull from these stories, the most obvious one being that physical strength without modesty, humility and common-sense is not ultimately admirable. Yet we still look up to such heroes because we have an eternal hunger for a deliverer–someone who will eradicate evil beings and cleanse our communities, even the world as a whole–of all the faults which we are too weak to conquer ourselves. I faintly recall a movie during the 1970s of one of two films–either Walking Tall (1973) or Death Wish (1974)–in which the reviewer likened the main character to Beowulf. Both films’ protagonists were basically vigilantes, although Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) in Walking Tall was a sheriff, and Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish was simply an angry citizen. Both men were out for revenge, the old Germanic warrior code tenet.

Beowulf is depicted in his battle against Grendl : (Google Images)

Beowulf is depicted in his battle against Grendel : (Google Images)


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