The Boxcar Children celebrates 75 years.Read More
We recently went to see the movie King Arthur, by Guy Ritchie. We loved it! It plays around with the legend, no doubt, but mostly in very interesting ways, and it’s fun to watch regardless. I’ve been a fan of the Arthurian legends ever since I can remember; the first version I read was probably a copy of Howard Pyle’s version of the tales, checked out from my grade school library. Next I found an old condensed version of Malory; this was the first antique book I owned, and I had to puzzle out the meaning of some of the archaic words. But my liking grew into an obsession when I encountered the major retellings of the twentieth century.
The first great modern rendition – and possibly the greatest – is The Once and Future King, the masterpiece of T.H. White, originally published in four parts from 1938 to 1958. You may know the first part the best: The Sword in the Stone, adapted into a movie by Walt Disney. Deliberately anachronistic in its settings, the book serves as much more than a retelling of the story of Arthur, expanding it into a truly great tragedy and commentary on history, politics, and the futility of war. The novel was also the basis of the musical Camelot.
Next up was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic The Mists of Avalon, which retold the saga from the points of view of its women: primarily Viviane, Igraine, and Morgaine. Though relying on Malory for infrastructure, Bradley revolutionized the tales by refocusing on likely conflicts in the actual fifth-century setting: pagan vs. Christian, old ways vs. new, female power vs. male. Brilliantly imagined characters and innovative adaptations of old plot elements make the story fresh and unexpected.
Not long after Mists, I was given the spectacular trilogy by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, all narrated by Merlin (Stewart wrote a fourth book too, The Wicked Day, from Mordred’s point of view, but it never felt to me like it was truly part of the series). Merlin is a compelling character from the beginning, and the rise of the clever but humble child to feared advisor of kings is believable and captivating.
I’ve enjoyed other authors’ forays into the Matter of Britain as well: Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, Stephen Lawhead, and Kazuo Ishiguro, whose brilliant novel The Buried Giant is set in Britain not long after Arthur’s death. I admit I still haven’t readThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, by John Steinbeck (yes, Steinbeck!) though I did read Twain’s Connecticut Yankee a long time ago. The Arthurian legends are a rich and fertile soil for imagination, with a huge cast of characters, a vast catalog of incidents, and a centuries-long precedent for making up your own contributions, from Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory to Layamon to Chrétien to Tennyson.
If you’re really hardcore, I’ll suggest you take on the Alliterative Morte Arthure (in the original Middle English), or possibly the recently published (though sadly fragmentary) Death of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, written in modern English but in alliterative verse, and very much in the spirit of the medieval poets.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
So there’s a new book you may have heard about: When Breath Becomes Air, by the late Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer last March. In the last year of his life he published several essays on facing cancer, the irony of being a doctor with a terminal illness, and the sadness of not being able to see his daughter grow up. And Paul worked on a book, shepherded to completion and publication by his wife Lucy. But I don’t think of him as Paul – I think of him as Pubby (his nickname). Because that’s how he was introduced to me twenty years ago.
Pubby and I had a lot of things in common. We were English majors, active members of the Stanford Band, wrote scripts for the Band’s field shows, and served terms as public relations director for the Band. This is an understatement, but he had a great sense of humor – it worked on levels from subtle and dry to completely over-the-top and crazy. We liked each other’s writing, and shared stories about crazy hate mail we responded to. I remember when he tried to bleach his hair, and the closest he could get was orange. I’ve heard he always wore fake mustaches for ID photos, and was known to randomly show up to events wearing a gorilla suit.
He had another side, it turns out. Besides majoring in English, he also majored in human biology, and like many of my band friends, eventually became a doctor (by the way, majoring in Hum Bio alone is tough, without a reading-heavy major like English on top of it). He returned to the Bay Area, working as a neurosurgeon at the Stanford hospital. And the rest you know, or you will when you read his book. We weren’t close friends, and I hadn’t seen him in person in about ten years, but the news of his illness hit me harder than I expected. Reading his moving words made it a little easier to think of his impending death, if only because I could see how his various and disparate talents had melded in this perfect, tragic, way.
One thing that will really get you is when Pubby writes about his and Lucy’s daughter, who was born in the last year of his life. He knew he wouldn’t have much time with her, but he was determined to enjoy all the time he had. I look at my children and wonder if I have made the most of my time with them – how they would remember me if they were suddenly to lose me. Pubby was the third person from my era of the LSJUMB to pass away in a span of about a year (all from cancer), prompting me (and many of my friends, I’m sure) to dwell on my own mortality. But Pubby’s writing, I think, will not cause us to become obsessed with our deaths, but our lives: is what we’re doing worth doing? What is the best use we can make of the time we have left, however much time that is? What are the things that are really most important to us? I hope his book will help you find the answers to these questions. Snowden’s secret in Catch-22 is that man is matter, that we are fragile machines prone to destruction. Pubby’s secret is that despite that fragility, man can matter – we can choose to make a difference in this world before our own fragile machines break down, and our breath becomes air.