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Archive for March, 2012

You know that old metaphor about whether scholars are hedgehogs or foxes? (See a great series on this topic over at Notorious Ph.D.’s blog.) Well, apparently grad students are all badgers. Any of this sound familiar?

    “I am writing a treatise just now,” said the badger, coughing diffidently to show that he was absolutely set on explaining it, “which is to point out why Man has become the master of the animals. Perhaps you would like to hear it?
“It’s for my doctor’s degree, you know,” he added hastily, before the Wart could protest. He got few chances of reading his treatises to anybody, so he could not bear to let the opportunity slip by.
“Thank you very much,” said the Wart.
“It will be good for you, dear boy. It is just the thing to top off an education. Study birds and fish and animals: then finish off with Man. How fortunate that you came! Now where the devil did I put that manuscript?”
The old gentleman scratched about with his great claws until he had turned up a dirty bundle of papers, one corner of which had been used for lighting something. Then he sat down in his leather armchair, which had a deep depression in the middle of it; put on his velvet smoking-cap with the tassel; and produced a pair of tarantula spectacles, which balanced on the end of his nose.
“Hem,” said the badger.
He immediately became paralyzed with shyness, and sat blushing at his papers, unable to begin.
“Go on,” said the Wart.
“It is not very good,” he explained coyly. “It is just a rough draft, you know. I shall alter a lot before I sent it in.”
“I am sure it must be interesting.”
“Oh not, it is not a bit interesting. It is just an odd thing I threw off in an odd half-hour, just to pass the time. But still, this is how it begins.
“Hem!” said the badger. Then he put on an impossibly high falsetto voice and began to read as fast as possible.

I’m rereading The Once and Future King by T. H. White for the first time since I was a kid. I had forgotten how delicious and wise and funny it is. Don’t we all need an audience like the Wart sometimes? Some of us even resort to writing blogs. And I just love that “‘It’s not very good,’ he explained coyly.”

The story which the badger tells from his treatise is quite wonderful also, and a great literary response to biological determinists on human warfare as “natural.”

(Aside: It depresses me how many of the initial hits for a simple Google search of “badger once and future king” are commercial reading summaries, presumably for students assigned The Once and Future King in a class. Not that book guides are inherently bad, but this looks like “I didn’t want to do the homework” material, and it’s disheartening that there are readers out there so overwhelmed or under-motivated that they would miss out on the delight of this book. Don’t even get me started on the “FREE OaFK Essays!” links.)

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Random Bullets of Hans Christian Andersen, that is.

While collecting some materials at the Landesarchiv Schleswig, I’m staying at an absolutely lovely Ferienwohnung (pension). Its only fault is internet speed as slow-moving as the glaciers which formed the Kiel Fjord (out there in the Ostsee). As this is actually probably beneficial for my internet addiction, I’m out this evening, writing this particular blog entry on paper.

I just took a stroll along the Schlei, where the sight of sea foam gathering on the rocks made me think of Hans Christian Andersen, naturally. So here is a list of random thoughts I’m having inspired by the storyspinner, unsullied by searching for actual information on the web.

  • Firstly, is that white stuff actually sea foam?  Any ocean-studying people out there want to tell me what sea foam really is?
 sea foam
  • The aristocratic family (the counts zu Rantzau in Breitenburg) whose papers I spent a fortune copying today [1] produced a son named Conrad. Conrad grew up, and, following that, became a semi-important figure in the struggle over the Schleswig-Holstein Question. [2] It’s hard to imagine it while walking around the sleepy town today, but this region was at least warmly contested between Denmark and Germany until a mere century and a half ago. Anyway, our Conrad served as a diplomat and minister during the border uncertainty and consequently acquired several Danish connections, including his membership in the Danish Order of the Elephant [3] and a friendship he cultivated with one Danish poet: Hans Christian Andersen. And you thought I’d completely lost the “point.”
  • Speaking of noble houses, do you know the story about poor HCA’s unrequited infatuation with his friend Edvard Collin, his patron’s son? Apparently Andersen, who was desperately in love with this guy, begged to be allowed the familiarity of using the informal “you” grammatical form—only to get shot down by his social superior. This story came up recently during a conversation about the tricky social mechanics of the German equivalent (the occasions to “duzen” someone) with the delightful Hillary and Brooke. It is just not as simple as beginning grammar books would have you believe. (Though at least I haven’t suffered as much as HCA!)
  • The pathetic tragedy of that story and other details of the real Andersen’s biography (e.g. overstaying his welcome at Charles Dickens’s house so long the novelist wrote in his diary about how much they were waiting for Andersen to leave) make me want to balance knowing these things with the also sad but endearing details of his funeral. I remember reading somewhere that there was a long parade of children at the affair, and it’s certainly true that HCA asked a composer to write music for the funeral to “keep time with little steps.”
  • From the sad to the sweet to the silly: I probably heard that story about Collin in a course with Jack Zipes. In addition to publishing a study of Hans Christian Andersen in 2005, he’s one of the most influential scholars on the Grimms, folklore in general, and children’s literature, and, I’m lucky to say, one of my teachers. Jack’s work has been important to shaping my ideas about fairy tales since before we met. [4] On one point I disagree with him, however: the 1952 Danny Kaye/Frank Loesser musical Hans Christian Andersen. Jack has described it as (I’m paraphrasing here) a schlocky and ridiculous piece of fiction.  I agree, it has almost nothing to do with the, shall we say, “historical” or “actual” Andersen, except: Stephen and I watched it on VHS repeatedly as kids, and I cannot abandon my affection for it. I mean just listen: “A swan? Me, a swan? Ah, go on!” … “What’s the difference if you’re very small?/When your heart is full of love, you’re nine feet tall!” … “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town…“ It’s enough to make me want to hop the border this instant.
  • Coming round again to that sea foam, I want to close with a great photo my friend and former student Yueqin sent me. Here she is, in all her lovely, tragic poignancy—but not in Copenhagen Harbor! For the first time, the Little Mermaid left Denmark to journey to the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Now you tell me, does that reincarnation as a celebrated world traveler redeem the story of her (literal) loss of self, or only underscore the cruelty of her sacrifice? I don’t know, I’m too busy listening to “The suit of clothes is altogether, but altogether, it’s altogether the most remarkable suit of clothes that I have ever seen…”
little mermaid


1. I think it was worth it, though: great children’s letters and school documents, as well as the longest and most elaborate collection of holiday “cards” I’ve encountered yet. Usually an archive file will hold one or two or five of these artful wishes for New Year’s or a parent’s birthday. This Abteilung has almost 50, and each is an extravagantly presented pamphlet of several pages.

2. I know I already posted this to thefacebook AND quoted it to everybody likely to read this blog, but I just have to offer the best of descriptions for this historical murkiness (borrowed from Wikipedia’s citation of Lytton Stracey’s 1921 book on Queen Victoria):  “‘Only three people,’ said Palmerston, ‘have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.'”

3. There it is, historical coincidence (or serendipity?) keeping the blog-naming justified.

4. I actually realized recently that my dear friend Rose and I used one of Jack Zipes’s books in an Agora Days class on fairy tales which we taught in high school.

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