Tolkien and Lewis

JRR Tolkein (1891-1973) and CS Lewis (1898-1963) were colleagues and friends before and during their careers as writers. Both men wrote fantasy – the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, respectively – and were both serious Christians. They differed, however, in the role their faith played in their works, one of many points of friction which shaped the ups and downs of a twenty-year friendship.

Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Lost’ generation born in the late 1800s. Both fought at the Battle of the Somme and studied at Oxford. Lewis, though raised a Northern Irish protestant, was an atheist, while Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic.

On meeting Tolkein in 1926, Lewis described him as a ‘a smooth, pale, fluent little chap,’ adding ‘no harm in him: only needs a smack or two’. Nonetheless, they shared a fondness for Norse mythology, loose tweed trousers and beer. By 1927 they were close friends. Tolkien modelled the character Treebeard’s speech patterns off Lewis. For years, Lewis was the only person Tolkien shared his works, and he offered steady encouragement.

Tolkien helped convert Lewis to Christianity. They enjoyed rigorous intellectual discussions, and religion was a common subject. After a talk lasting until 3 am in 1931 with Tolkien and professor Hugo Dyson, Lewis converted; though, to Tolkein’s dismay, not to Catholicism but the Church of England.

In the 30s and 40s, Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Inklings’, a writing group who met weekly at the Eagle and Child pub. Lewis, at the time, wrote mainly science fiction and Christian works. Once Tolkien was sharing the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), their friendship had begun to cool.

Tolkien ignored most of Lewis’s suggestions – that he remove LOTR’s frequent songs and poems, for example. Furthermore, by the time Tolkien finally published it in 1954, Lewis had already written a popular fantasy series of his own.

Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter:

‘Undoubtedly he felt that Lewis had in some ways drawn on Tolkien’s ideas and stories in the books; and just as he resented Lewis’s progress from convert to popular theologian he was perhaps irritated by the fact that the friend and critic who had listened to the tales of Middle-earth had as it were got up from his armchair, gone to the desk, picked up a pen, and ‘had a go’ himself. Moreover, the sheer number of Lewis’s books for children and the almost indecent haste which they were produced undoubtedly annoyed him.’

Tolkien never liked the Chronicles of Narnia. To him, they cherry-picked aspects of different mythologies and folk traditions without building a ground-up coherence. Narnia’s worldbuilding was too shallow. While both LOTR and Narnia were deeply Christian works, Tolkien disliked the latter’s use of allegory which he felt was too on the nose.

While the two had drifted apart by the time Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, CS Lewis did write a glowing review describing it as ‘like lightning from a clear sky’.

When CS Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla:

 ‘So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age-like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots’.

Sources: Humphrey Carpenter – JRR Tolkien: A Biography (1976)

Paganism

Paganism describes the old religions of the world – before Christianity and Islam came to dominate. We generally use the term in a historical context, especially in areas that are Christian, Muslim or non-religious today. A follower of paganism is a pagan; a modern revivalist is a neopagan.

Pagans did not consider themselves members of a particular ‘religion’ – belief in gods and spirits was simply a part of life. To ancient people, denying the existence of Jupiter or Ra was like denying lightning. There was no concept of ‘religion’ either; religion, society and government were one and the same. 

Paganism was not one creed or set of beliefs but a variety of practices and ideas about the natural world. Pagans did, however, have some ideas in common:

  • polytheism – belief in many gods
  • myths and legends
  • animal sacrifice
  • sacred places like temples, groves and shrines
  • belief in magic

Pagans believed supernatural forces influenced everyday life; these included spirits, ancestors and all-powerful gods. Such forces decided fortune, weather and the elements; everything mortals could not control. Deities could be common across whole cultures or specific to a single region, household, lake or tree.

One could appease a deity by praying to them or offering the life of an animal or (in some cultures) a person. Belief in one god was not exclusive, nor did pagans strictly adhere to gods from their culture. Ancient Rome, for example, had temples to not only its native gods but deities from Greece, Egypt and Persia. Gods represented everything from the sea and sky to abstract concepts like victory or love.

Pagans told stories about their gods but did not treat these stories as gospel truth. Their purpose was less to dictate the origins of the universe than to explain natural phenomena, justify rituals and entertain. It did not matter if narratives contradicted one another.

Most important to pagans were their rituals, for keeping on the good side of the gods was essential to a healthy society. For pagans, what one did was more important than what one believed. In Greece and Rome, in particular, ethics was not the domain of the gods but philosophers.

Many pagans believed in an afterlife. In the Egyptian and Norse traditions, dying and living the right way was immensely important. For others, the afterlife was either dreary, irrelevant, or non-existent. Worshipping gods and spirits were less about benefits in this world than in the next.

The word pagan likely comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, it spread first amongst the urban poor, and then the elite. By the 4th century BC, only the rural population – the pagani­- still worshipped the old gods. The name stuck. As pagans did not consider themselves as belonging to a particular religion; the term is best used when distinguishing old believers from the newer faiths which did.

Sources: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity

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Norse Mythology

Arbo Painting - The Wild Hunt of Odin, Norse Mythology by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Norse Mythology is the body of pre-Christian stories from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. After the Classical tradition, Norse mythology is the best preserved in Europe. Reaching their heyday in the Viking age, tales of the Norse gods still influence film and literature today.

Norse mythology comes from the northern branch of the paganism once followed in Germany, Scandinavia and England, and is by far the most extensive and best preserved. 

Snorri Sturlusson, an Icelandic priest and politician, recorded the old oral tales in the Prose Edda in the 13th century. Unlike the monks who recorded the Slavic and Celtic myths around the same time, Sturlusson did not overtly Christianise this subject matter but told the Norse stories as is. We therefore know far more about them today.

The Poetic Edda, recorded in the same time, is a compilation of 31 poems by unknown authors and a key source.

Norse mythology preserves many old Indo-European motifs, including:

  • a world tree
  • a hound at the gates of the underworld
  • dragon slaying heroes
  • the wild hunt
  • a prominant thunder god

Yggdrasil is the tree at the centre of the universe. A dragon called the Niddhog gnaws at its roots and from it forms nine worlds:

  • Asgard – home of the Aesir
  • Vanaheim – home of the Vanir
  • Alfheim – home of the light elves
  • Dokkalfheim – home of the dark elves
  • Midgard – our world
  • Jotunheim – home of the giants
  • Svartalfheim – home of the dwarves
  • Muspelheim – the world of fire
  • Niflheim – the world of ice

The universe started in a collision of the primordial worlds of ice and fire. A giant called Ymir emerged from the ice, whom Odin – father of the gods – slew. His body formed the earth, and his blood the sea. 

Jötnar (singular jötun), came from Ymir’s armpits. Commonly translated as ‘giants’, they have similar powers to the gods and represent antagonistic forces. While sometimes mentors, helpers or lovers to the Aesir, they are most often foes. As Odin, Loki and Tyr are half-Jötunn, the jötnar may have been a rival family of gods rather than different beings altogether. 

Norsemen worshipped the Aesir. These include taciturn Odin, who sacrifices his right eye for knowledge, and hot-blooded Thor, who wields a hammer and protects humankind. The Aesir’s power surpasses humanity, but they are not immortal. They rely on golden apples to retain their youth and know when and how they will die.  

Main Gods:

  • Odin – god of wisdom, poetry and war. 
  • Thor – his son, god of thunder.
  • Loki – god of mischief and deceit
  • Freyja – goddess of magic, fertility and beauty.
  • Freyr – her brother, god of fertility
  • Njord – their father, god of the sea
  • Heimdall – god of vigilance, watches the bridge between Asgard and the other worlds.
  • Hel – Loki’s daughter, goddess of the underworld
  • Frigg – Odin’s wife, goddess of motherhood and clairvoyance
  • Baldr – their son, god of beauty.

Freyja, Frey and Njord were originally Vanir, a rival group of gods. After an inconclusive war, they went to live with the Aesir in Asgard.

In Icelandic, nouns have an ‘r’ at the end when they are the subject. So, for example, names like Odin and Njord are sometimes rendered Odinr and Njordr.

The Norse believed if they died in battle, female warriors called Valkyries would fly them to Valhalla, where they would feast all night and fight all day, only to be born again and again. Odin was raising an army for Ragnarok. Those who died of natural causes go to the dreary realm of Hel. 

Loki, the trickster, is the enemy within. His scheming starts as simple mischief but grows more and more destructive. His shenanigans breed monstrous children who end up causing Armageddon.

Ragnarok is the end of the world. Norse mythology is unique in that it has an ending. In the final battle, the Aesir and their foes destroy each other and Asgard crumbles. Once the dust settles, however, the few survivors rebuild a new and better world.

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Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) by Yuval Noah Harari, follows on from his 2016 book ‘Sapiens’. While Sapiens examines the history of our species, Homo Deus projects on the future. Harari explores what new technologies the world faces and how they may shape our health, well-being and belief systems. It is the latter which matters most.

Homo Deus begins by discussing the three universal challenges of the past – war, famine and disease. Modern technology has curtailed them all. I admit this seemed ironic in the era of Covid and Russo-Ukrainian War. However, the facts remain the same in 2016 as of 2022. Suicide kills more than war, obesity more than starvation. Modern medicine has curtailed the past’s most vicious diseases. We will see what comes of grain shortages and monkeypox.

Homo Deus has 7 chapters:

  1. The New Human Agenda – eternal happiness, perfect health and immortality.
  2. The Anthropocene – evolution of human society.
  3. The Human Spark – modern science and the nature of consciousness.
  4. The Storytellers – rehashes many of the ideas laid out in Sapiens, in particular our ‘intersubjective’ reality.
  5. The Odd Couple – the difference between science and religion.
  6. The Modern Covenant – how modernity trades meaning for power.
  7. The Humanist Revolution – our modern belief system.
  8. The Time Bomb in the Laboratory – how new scientific discoveries will challenge our humanist worldview.
  9. The Great Decoupling – the power of the AI algorithms.
  10. The Ocean of Consciousness – techno-humanism, what it is and how it might evolve
  11. The Data Religion – how data drives the universe.

To discuss the future, Homo Deus delves into the past and present to explain where we might go next. It highlights profound ethical considerations; discussing philosophy, science and evolution in the spheres of biological engineering and AI.

The book’s second half is particularly chilling. AI algorithms are outpacing human beings. Not only can they play chess, solve equations or drive better than us, but computers can surpass people in realms we deem quintessentially human, such as art and music. When machines do everything better than humans, what value do we have? The question should concern us more than our ability to reverse ageing, travel in space or edit our genes. Most chillingly, it is inevitable.

Harari’s narration comes across as cold and detatched, as if he were an objective algorithm detailing the history of intelligent beings, and not a Homo Sapiens himself. He maintains the accessible style of Sapiens when tackling sophisticated concepts – which is most of the book. The style is accessible, but the tone is scientific. By reading between the lines, however, one sees Harari is only describing our state of affairs; what the reader makes of it is up to them.

Homo Deus is an intriguing book for anyone interested in the future of our species. Harari is an historian, however, not a life scientist, and we have more data on the past than future. For these reasons, Homo Deus does not hold up to Sapiens, nor should it be the authority on the implications of AI and the changing pace of the planet. It still remains a good read.

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Humanism

This post is a summary of Chapter 7 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus.

Humanism is the dominant religion of the modern age. It underpins how we see the world, the stories we tell and our perceptions of goodness, beauty and truth. Rather than exalting a higher power, humanism places homo sapiens at the centre of the universe. By drawing their own purpose and sense of self, human beings can create meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. This world-view predominates in Western and secular societies today, even among the nominally religious.

In the past, humans believed in a world order governed by deities and spirits. Every man, woman and child had a role to play and laws to follow, but their destiny was not theirs to decide. While lacking in agency and power, humans believed life was worthwhile so long as they played their part. In traditional religious societies, laws and political power came not from people but from above. Reality was objective and priests and kings were its arbiters. The old view claims humans are unique but inherantly flawed therefore requiring guidance in their every action.

The Scientific Revolution uprooted the old belief systems. Discoveries in biology and physics revealed the world was random, and in effect purposeless. While most of the world was nominally religious, by the 1800s, many – in Europe particular – no longer let faith guide their lives as it had before, thus Nietzsche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’.

Philosophers like Rosseau, Voltaire and Kant believed that human will gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. What you choose to do in life should not be God’s decision, or your parent’s, but yours. Our inner world is rich and alive – demons and angels exist not outside us, but within. People should be free to do as they please and love whom they please, so long as they do not harm others. Murder is a crime, not because holy texts say so, but because it infringes on another’s right to live. Art is what people agree it is. Legitimate power comes from the masses, not from above.

The 19th century saw three strains of humanism develop:

  • Liberal humanism: individual rights are paramount. History is a gradual progression of scientific knowledge and individual freedoms. Every human is unique. Voters know best. The customer is always right. Beauty is the in the eye of the beholder.
  • Socialist humanism: collective rights are paramount. History is a story of different groups oppressing others for their own gain. Humans are products of their environment. Politics, economics and art should serve the greater human good.
  • Evolutionary humanism: rights are irrelevant in the march of history. Humans are unique, but not all are equal. Politics, economics and war are engines of natural selection and human destiny is survival of the fittest. Art and beauty are objective.

The 20th century saw humanist ‘wars of religion’ fought worldwide. Socialism came close in the 1970s, but ultimately liberal humanism prevailed, and dominates the modern world.

Today’s world runs on the principles of democracy, human rights, individualism and a free market. Swathes of people may cling to older religions and worldviews, but liberal humanism dominates the world’s institutions. The greatest innovations of the past century, including modern medicine, computer science and feminism, stem from the liberal humanist tradition.

Sources: Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus

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The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King (1958) is a historical fantasy epic by TH White. The titular king is Arthur. A collection of five books, it traces Arthur’s childhood as the orphan Wart to his old age and death. Beginning as a whimsical children’s fantasy, Once and Future King gets progressively darker and more dramatic while maintaining steady humour and anachronisms. 

The Once and Future King includes five books individually published between 1938 and 1941:

  1. The Sword in the Stone (made into a 1963 Disney film)
  2. The Witch in the Wood
  3. The Ill-made Knight
  4. The Candle in the Wind
  5. The Book of Merlyn

The last book reads more like a philosophical treatise where, through Merlyn, White explores the morality of violence and war. Publishers originally rejected this book which is why parts of it are in the Sword in the Stone. The Book of Merlyn did not reach shelves until 1977, 13 years after White’s death. 

White’s primary source was Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory. Once and Future King follows the same plot – the Round Table, Guinevere’s adultery and the final battle with Mordred – but gives greater insight into the minds and motivations of its principal characters. The Grail Quest is brushed over.

Arthur is a well-meaning and thoughtful but naive figure. He knows his wife is sleeping with his best friend but turns a blind eye because publically knowing would compel him to execute them both. He intends on bringing lasting peace to Britain by stifling the violent instincts of its lords and believes in following his own laws.

Merlyn is Arthur’s tutor. In this version of the Arthur story, Merlyn is an absent-minded, quirky magician who lives backwards. Merlyn knows the future – and references it often – but cannot understand where people come from. He tutors Arthur by transforming him into a series of animals to impart valuable lessons. His familiar is a talking owl called Archimedes. 

Guinevere is Arthur’s queen. She does not love Arthur but yearns for his knight Lancelot with whom she shares a tempestuous relationship. Guinevere has a touchy pride and is formidable when crossed. 

Lancelot, in this version of the story, is brilliant but ugly. He battles his insecurities and self-loathing by becoming the greatest knight alive. He loves both Arthur and Guinevere, but cannot stop himself from betraying his king. The strongest character in the book, Lancelot, is delightfully self-destructive. 

White places the Arthurian Myth in the 13th century. Arthur is a Norman King – his father Uther being analogous to William the Conqueror. The real historical kings of England are referred to in this world as legends and myths.

TH White was a troubled soul who lived alone. He was a closet homosexual and a self-admitted sadist who repressed violent urges his whole life. Rather than fight, he spent WW2 in a cabin in Ireland, where he wrote this book. White channels himself into the tortured figure of Lancelot and his futile attempts at doing the right thing.

To this day, critics hail Once and Future King as the greatest adaptation of the Arthur myth. Contrary to fantasies of the time, character supersedes worldbuilding, making it read more like a drama than an adventure novel. 

The blurb of my version reads:

This is the tale of King Arthur and his shining Camelot; of Merlyn and Owl and Guinevere; of beasts who talk and men who fly; of knights, wizardry and war.

It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad; the masterpiece of fantasy by which all others are judged.

Mazzy Star – Fade Into You

This video is of band Mazzy Star performing their most well-known hit – Fade Into You – in 1994.

Mazzy Star was founded in Santa Monica, California in 1988 by former Opal frontman David Roback and his friend Hope Sandoval.  Roback, who plays guitar, composed the band’s music while Sandoval wrote and sang the lyrics. Keith Mitchell played drums. Their music grew out of the neo-psychadelic scene of the Paisley Underground in 1980s Los Angeles, and combines elements of blues, pop, folk and alternative rock. Mazzy Star has echoes of the ‘LA Darkness’, often explored by Gen X artists from the area. Fade Into You was their only song to break the Billboard 100.

I find Sandoval mesmerising. Known for shyness, she performs as if the audience is not there. Coupled with the dreamy instrumentation, her voice is beautifully melancholic. I had never heard of Mazzy Star until this video showed up on my youtube homepage, after a spree of folk indulgence. Watching her for the first time, I all but fell in love.

Lyrics:

I want to hold the hand inside you
I want to take the breath that’s true
I look to you, and I see nothing
I look to you to see the truth

You live your life, you go in shadows
You’ll come apart, and you’ll go black
Some kind of night into your darkness
Colors your eyes with what’s not there

Fade into you
Strange you never knew
Fade into you
I think it’s strange you never knew

A stranger’s light comes on slowly
A stranger’s heart without a home
You put your hands into your head
And then smiles cover your heart

Fade into you
Strange you never knew
Fade into you
I think it’s strange you never knew

Fade into you
Strange you never knew
Fade into you
I think it’s strange you never knew

I think it’s strange you never knew

 

Books I Read in 2021

Old Book Wallpapers - Wallpaper Cave

Last January, I set out to read ten books in 2021. I did – but the extra two were work-related and I shan’t mention them here. Of those listed, three were translated. Regular reading does wonders, not only for learning but general concentration in our dopamine-saturated age. This year, I hope to read another ten – hopefully more.

January

  • Herodotus – The Histories (430 BC). The first book about history. All writings about the Greco-Persian Wars trace back to Herodotus. 5/5

April

  • Witi Ihimaera – Navigating the Stars (2020). A comprehensive book on Māori mythology. Well written and humorous. 4/5

July

  • Paolo Coelho – The Alchemist (1988). An Andalusian shepherd goes on an adventure to see the pyramids. Poignant but somewhat overrated. 4/5.
  • Miguel Cervantes – Don Quixote (1605). Spain’s best book. Hilarious but long. 5/5
  • Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea (1952). A Cuban fisherman goes out to sea one last time. Gripping. 5/5


August

  • Larry Mcmutry – Comanche Moon (1997). A horse thief kidnaps a Texas Ranger captain. Full of violence, adventure and melancholy. I devoured it. 5/5.

October

  • Stephen King – On Writing (2000). Part memoir and writer’s handbook. A useful aide. 5/5

See Also:

Civilisation and Writing

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Not every human society is a civilisation. By scholarly definition, civilisation must meet particular criteria.  

V. Gordon Childe describes ten:

  1. trade
  2. urbanisation
  3. political organisation
  4. social hierarchy
  5. art
  6. specialised occupations
  7. science and engineering
  8. public works
  9. concentration of wealth
  10. writing

When civilisations grow in isolation, they are easy to distinguish. In our modern world, they are not. Of all the criteria, writing is the clearest way to separate one civilisation from another. Except for Japan, literate societies use only one writing system.

Writing has only been ‘invented’ five times. All other writing systems developed from five base systems invented in the Cradles of Civilisation:

  • Egyptian hieroglyphs (North Africa)
  • Sumerian cuneiform (Middle East)
  • Chinese characters (East Asia)
  • Indus script (South Asia)
  • Olmec script (Central America)

Europe and Southeast Asia only saw writing – and hence civilisation – develop because of their proximity to the five Cradles. The Roman script I write in grew out of Greek, which came from Phoenician, which, in turn, grew out of hieroglyphs. 

If we in the modern world trace our most-used scripts – Roman, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Cyrillic, and Japanese – to their origin, we trace all civilisation to its five crucibles. The original scripts have grown, mutated, cross-pollinated and diversified in the four thousand years since, but the fact remains: writing – and hence civilisation – was only born five times.

Modern scripts descend from only three of the ‘original writing systems’. The Semitic alphabets grew out of hieroglyphs, evolved into Arabic, Hebrew and Greek and supplanted cuneiform. Spanish colonisation drove Mesoamerican scripts extinct. Precluding cuneiform and the Olmec derived scripts, we can group the literate societies of today into three ‘civilisations’:

  • Egyptian derived – Africa, the Western and Islamic worlds, the Philippines, Latin America, the South Pacific.
  • Chinese derived – China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan
  • Indian derived – India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos
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There are distinct and varied divisions within each group, and the depth of these divisions generally correspond with how early their scripts branched off. Egyptian derived systems are the most salient case. Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet), Arabic and Latin were already distinct alphabets when literate Koreans wrote in Chinese. There is also a strong correlation between writing systems and religion. Most societies that use the Latin scripts today were historically Christian, while the spread of Arabic went hand in hand with Islam. Arabic and Latin script share a distant common origin; so do Islam and Christianity.

Over millennia, the base civilisations spread their influence through trade and conquest. They formed their varieties through fusion with indigenous societies like Aztec, Bantu, Celtic and Tai-Kadai. 

Some civilisations do not fit. Vietnam, for example, uses the Roman writing system but has much more in common with its Chinese and Indic influenced neighbours. In cases like this, one can determine the civilisation through religious heritage. Modern Vietnam is largely atheist, but its heritage is Buddhist – a religion that grew from the Indian tradition. 

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The ancestor of the modern Indic scripts – Brahmi – may have itself derived from the Semitic alphabets, not the original Indus script. If true, this would put the Indic societies in the Egyptian-derived camp.

The laws, stories and histories which make civilisations have survived through writing. Writing, more than anything, shapes how the immaterial qualities of civilisation continue across time. All civilisation traces to the five Cradles, and the clearest way to trace that line of descent is through written script.

See Also:

Lonesome Dove

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Lonesome Dove (1985), by Larry McMurtry, is the most critically acclaimed western. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986 and is McMurtry’s magnum opus. More literary fiction in a western setting than a cowboys-and-Indians romp, Lonesome Dove tells the story of two ageing ex-Texas Rangers who lead a cattle drive from south Texas to the wilderness of Montana. It examines friendship, love and death through a host of larger-than-life yet painfully realistic characters. Texas Monthly calls it the state’s hero myth. 

Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are the co-owners of the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium, renting out horses and cows in the dusty border town of Lonesome Dove. In their youth, they were Texas Ranger captains, who fought Comanches in the state’s frontier days. Now Texas is becalmed, and the buffalo are nearing extinction.

Quick-witted, charming and thoughtful, McCrae spends his days indulging in alcohol and prostitutes while pining for an old flame who married a horse trader twenty years before. 

Woodrow Call is a tough and determined leader of men, with an iron sense of duty. He is stubborn and pragmatic but socially inept, particularly around women, and refuses to face his past mistakes.

McMurtry claimed the idea for two opposing men – the pragmatic and the visionary – came from Don Quixote. McCrae is an Epicurean, Call a stoic, and, although they are very different, their many conversations echo those of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Hat Creek Cattle Company & Livery Emporium Lonesome Dove ...

The call to adventure comes from their friend Jake Spoon. After ten years of absense, he appears in Lonesome Dove wanted, having killed a dentist in Fort Smith. Spoon tales of unclaimed land persuade Call and McCrae to leave Lonesome Dove and bring two thousand cattle to the last frontier. They hire a team of cowboys and set off.

The novel follows a host of characters including wistful whores, naïve sheriffs and sadistic bandits. The plotting is excellent. McMurtry’s narration is omniscient, slipping in and out of characters thoughts and opinions with ease. His dialogue and characterisation are superb, and often hilarious. The characters are not mere archetypes or cliches but bring a host of quirks and insecurities to the table – many with crippling emotional depth. 

Larry McMurtry, 2000:

“It’s hard to go wrong if one writes at length about the Old West, still the phantom leg of the American psyche. I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With The Wind of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”

Lonesome Dove does not paint the romantic picture of the Old West, so loved in the genre, nor does it indulge in hellish depictions in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, though there is violence aplenty. Instead, McMurtry paints the Frontier as-is: a time of adventure and possibility, but also immense hardship and cruelty. The innocents suffer most.

McMurtry wrote one sequel – Streets of Laredo (1989) and two prequels; Dead Man’s Walk (1995) and Comanche Moon (1997). I have read the latter, which is nearly as good and features more of the Native American perspective. 

Larry McMurtry of Archer City, Texas (1936 – 2021) – who later co-wrote Brokeback Mountain – began Lonesome Dove in 1972 as a screenplay. He sold the rights to Universal Pictures. The leads he envisioned, however – John Wayne and James Stewart – rejected the script. Twelve years later, McMurtry bought back the rights for $35,000 and rewrote it as a book. The gamble paid off – Lonesome Dove was an immediate success and spent 52 weeks on the bestseller list.

Lonesome Dove · Miss Moss

In 1989, CBS adapted Lonesome Dove as a TV miniseries starring Robert Duval as Augustus McCrae, Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call, Diana Lane as Lorena and Donald Glover as Deets. The script maintained much of the book’s dialogue and was nominated for 18 Emmies, winning seven. It revived both the Western genre and the miniseries format. Four adaptations of the Lonesome Dove tetralogy followed but were subpar.

Standing at 843 pages, Lonesome Dove is one of those rare books which is easy to read while bearing literary clout. It is among the best books I have read, and will likely read again.

 Sources: Texas Monthly

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