Adventures in Words: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Christopher Booker doesn’t keep the reader in suspense: they’re right there, on the cover: Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf), Rags to Riches (Oliver Twist), The Quest (The Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (The Odyssey), Comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Tragedy (Hamlet) and Rebirth (A Christmas Carol). The stories in brackets are just a very few examples of the stories he quotes: one of the most impressive aspects of the book is that Booker seems to have read everything.

For the purposes of this review, I will take it as read that Booker makes his case: there really are only seven basic plots and all stories fall into these, although some incorporate more than one plot. For instance, The Lord of the Rings encompasses all seven of the plots. Instead, what I would like to consider is the why that Booker advances. Why do the stories that we tell, starting with the earliest stories known to us such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and continuing into the present day revolve around these seven basic plots? According to Booker, it is because they are shaped by the archetypes that, according to Carl Jung, sit deep in our unconscious, archetypes such as the shadow, the anima, the wise old man and so on, with the archetype of the self, the undivided whole adult human, being the gravitational centre around which the other archetypes revolve and to which they all aim to resolve.

According to Booker, the ideal story ends with its elements united and the Self realised, which is most often symbolised in stories by the hero marrying the heroine. This is the point and end of stories and, according to Booker, this is what gives them their unique power when told well.

I have some sympathy with this idea. But as sources of the fundamental meaning of life, Booker is asking purely human psychological constructs to take more weight than they can bear. Meaning, fundamentally, cannot be derived from the structures of our own psyches as, to use a metaphor, it is like blowing up a balloon and then expecting it to act as its own foundations. The sort of universal meaning Booker is talking about in his book cannot be located purely in the psychological structures of the mind, although these can be intimately connected to it, but has to be grounded in something deeper, wider, older and broader. Really, Booker is talking about God but seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that.

So, curiously, the book suffers from something like the flaw that Booker ascribes to modern literature: an obsession with the the surface forms of things, the ego and its gratification at the expense of the deeper Self. The Seven Basic Plots likewise stops short before it reaches its destination, placing too much meaning in psychology while consciously or unconsciously avoiding the source of psychology, its ground and fountain.

However, the book remains a monumental body of work, deserving the highest accolade. I recommend it whole heartedly – and it will leave you wanting to read many more good books!

Adventures in Words: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

In a story of tables being turned, big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford finds that he is the prey and someone else in the hunter. It’s a taut, sharp thriller, a short story rather than a novel but one that’s deservedly remained in print since it was first published almost a hundred years ago.

But it makes me think: humans are pursuit hunters. We can run longer, farther and further than any other animal, having traded fur for the ability to sweat and thus regulate our temperature as we are running. As hunters of the African savannah, the ice plains of northern Europe or the deserts of Australia, that’s what we did: we pursued the prey relentlessly, running after it as it fled and never giving it time to rest so that, in the end, it simply collapsed. That is what we were. But it is also what we most fear: the relentless, implacable pursuer (think the first Terminator). What we fear most is an image of ourselves. And that is the fear that drives the plot of The Most Dangerous Game: man the hunter, hunted.

Adventures in Words: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

A literary sensation when it came out, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan was not quite what I expected. Yes, it shares some of the lurid prose as well as the tendency to drop off writing and add ellipses (…) when things start getting especially lurid of much other Victorian melodrama but then the stuff Machen is alluding to probably is better elided rather than spelled out. What I had not expected was the complexity of the narrative, with the point of view, time span and even the prose shifting during the course of the book. Perhaps I should have expected that – after all, Stevenson plays with points of view in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – but for some reason I had not. As such, the book requires a bit more thought and concentration than usual but it will repay the effort: this story really did push horror into the 20th century.

Adventures in Words: the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

The Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

There’s 12 books in the Alex Verus series and I raced through them, so I must have loved them. Yes?

Well, yes, but with a couple of qualifications. First, let me tell you who Alex Verus is and why I ended up reading 12 books about him over the space of about three months. Alex Verus is a mage, that is to say a wizard. However, he can’t do everything: his particular ability is to be able to sight walk probable futures and to adjust his own actions in light of these probabilities. Basically, he tells the future. Within the context of the nearly non-stop action in the books, this manifests most often as him dodging blasts of magic from other mages, out to get him. Because it turns out that other mages have particular abilities too: elemental mages can manipulate earth, fire, water or air (usually one element per mage), time mages can see into the past, and so on.

The magical world is divided into the mages of Light and Dark, and independents, which does rather suggest that one side is good and the other bad. But it turns out that the Light mages aren’t that much better than the Dark mages but what they do have is a much more highly developed bureaucracy. Because, yes, being able to do magic doesn’t mean that the world becomes a place of wonder: turns out magical society is much like our own but with magic battles, examinations, bureaucrats and thoroughly expendable security men (and even greater isolation and loneliness).

Alex Verus starts off as an independent, trying to mind his own business and his magic shop in Camden. By the end of the series, he’s minded everyone’s business but his own and his shop in Camden has been variously exploded, bombed, attacked and burned down.

For books one to eight, my Alex Verus review runs so: Alex, while apparently minding his own business, is drawn into trying to foil a nefarious plot laid by one or another ruthless faction. Through great ingenuity, he seems on the point of succeeding, only for everything to go pear shaped. Alex and his small group of friends seem to be on the point of painful and terminal failure when another idea allows them to make good on the mission and escape with their lives.

Yes, Benedict Jacka is of the Raymond Chandler school of plotting: when in doubt, have someone come in through the ceiling with a lightning spell.

The last four books are basically one continuous story arc, bearing every sign of a series that the writer was rather surprised would get so far but who then decides to finish off by throwing everything into the plot, stirring it vigorously and seeing who survives.

It’s all tremendous fun although perhaps, if the pace wasn’t so wonderfully brisk, one might see a few holes opening up in the world building and the plot. But it all moves along so quickly that the reader is swept along in the magical tide of events, right through to the conclusion.

So if you like fast-paced storytelling with wands substituting for guns and a personable hero who tries not to kill people despite accumulating a body count to match Harold Shipman then this is the series for you.

Adventures in Words: Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

Maxie’s Demon by Michael Scott Rohan

I finished Maxie’s Demon a while ago and coming, belatedly, to reviewing it I find that I can remember very little of the story. This does, I’m afraid, rather confirm the feeling of disappointment I had in reading it. Maxie’s Demon is the fourth in Rohan’s Spiral series, a sort of spin off sequel, and it doesn’t really add anything to the first three books. The premise – the Spiral that connects, envelops and transcends mundane reality with intermingled worlds of history and myth – is as compelling as ever but the story, and Maxie the protagonist in particular, don’t really carry the premise anywhere further.

An enjoyable enough read in its own right but a disappointment after the previous books.

Adventures in Words: The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

The Charioteer by Jemahl Evans

Silk. Even today the word carries connotations of luxury, elegance and cool sophistication. How much more was that the case in the 7th century when the only silk available in Europe, and in particular the still glorious Roman Empire based in Constantinople, had to be imported all the way from India. Wealthy Romans – and wealthy Romans were very wealthy – loved to flaunt their money by sponsoring Games (the old gladiatorial games had been outlawed when the Empire became Christian but the new Christian Empire became fanatically addicted to chariot racing) and wearing rich silk clothing. As the silk had to be transported through the territory of Rome’s long-standing enemy, the Sassanids, this left the Emperor beholden to his foes for supplying his magnates with their clothing.

In his history of the Emperor Justinian, Procopius mentions, in a small aside, how the secret of silk, silk worms breeding and feeding on mulberry bushes, was smuggled out of India and to Constantinople. From this short aside, Evans fashions a marvellously picaresque adventure novel where his protagonists, a retired charioteer, a disgraced aristocratic soldier looking to redeem his reputation and a general fixer who is convinced the world is flat, have to travel to India, retrieve the secret and get back to New Rome, all while being dogged by Sassanid secret agents.

It’s a marvellous romp across a world and a time that is little known, and that, unbeknownst to itself, would not last much longer. The Sassanids themselves would be overthrown in the next century when the conquering armies of Islam swept them aside. The Byzantines were shaken but rallied, but the central Asian world that our trio of adventurers cross was irrevocably changed.

Evans does a stirling job of bringing the time and its people to life, infusing the people with humanity while not downplaying the cultural strangeness of the time to modern people. The Charioteer is the first in a new series and I look forward to reading more adventures from Cal, Theo and Cosmas, and hope the book gets the readership it deserves. One word of warning though: don’t get too attached to the subsidiary characters. Not many of them make it through.

Adventures in Words: Blackstone Fortress: Ascension by Darius Hinks

Blackstone Fortress: Ascension by Darius Hinks

There’s not much hope in the grim darkness of the far future. In the 41st millennium, mankind is trapped into a decaying regime that manages to combine the worst aspects of late period Soviet communism (which was real) with medieval theocratic fascism (an entirely modern imagining) while being beset from all quadrants by enemies that really are worse than your worst nightmares. To navigate this universe, some people dive deep into nihilism – and there are 40k writers who will serve that up with complimentary bolters. But for myself I prefer something a little different, a little lighter, a little more, well… hopeful? Hopeful might be stretching the point so perhaps humane would be a better term.

A more humane take on the 41st millennium? It might seem a contradiction in terms, but it is possible. For that, there are few better 40k writers than Darius Hinks. A writer who manifestly cares about the people he puts on the page, he creates characters that are both believable and humane (even when they’re aliens) and rather than the endless carnage of eternal warfare looks, in this book, at one of the places where humans and xenos exist in uneasy truce in the face of something greater and more inexplicable than all of them: the Blackstone Fortress. Ascension brings the two-volume saga to an end but if Darius could ever find some way of bringing Janus Draik and his crew back from the places they end up at the finish of the story, I for one would be delighted to read more of their adventures.

Adventures with Words: Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades

Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades

An apt subtitle for this book would be ‘A Life with Swords’. Mike Loades did something that very few people would think possible: he took his fascination with ancient weapons and made a career of it. What was even more unusual was that he did this from the 1970s onwards, long before the current interest in historical European martial arts.

All this comes out as asides to the main story, which is a history of Western swords (with a single-chapter diversion to Japan), told by taking a single examplar for each period in the history of the sword and examining both the sword and its wielder. So, we have Tutankhamun’s khopesh, the Sutton Hoo sword, Henry V’s arming sword, and many others.

Interwoven through the stories of the ancient swords are Loades’s own reminiscences of how he worked with similar swords. For Loades found that one way of parlaying his knowledge of swords and swordfighting into a career was to sell his knowledge to film, TV and theatre companies, acting as a historical consultant and fight arranger. Good work if you can get it, but unreliable. So, to maintain a regular income, he also taught stage fighting at London drama schools.

And, talking about the book with my wife, it turns out that Mike Loades taught her stage fighting when she was at East 15 drama school! She was not a natural – during one lesson she unwittingly knocked out her partner. Despite this, Mike Loades remained patient and kind – he was, she says, an excellent teacher.

The book is full of unexpected nuggets of knowledge. Before reading it, I had no idea that there was another horse gait, the amble, falling between the walk and the trot. Those breeds of horse that have retained this gait can cover many miles in a day using while ambling (it’s faster than it sounds) and Loades tells us, having ridden these ambling horses, that the gait leaves the rider much fresher than having to bounce up and down all day in the trot.

Some is speculative, based on Loades’ own use of swords. For instance, his speculations on how the Egyptians used the khopesh, hooking shields with the blade’s spurs, seem entirely reasonable but we will never know for sure.

Minor quibbles include his treatment of pattern welding and a lack of engagement with what recent pracitioners of historical European martial arts have deduced about the use of swords when fighting armoured opponents, but overall it is a marvellous book, beautifully illustrated and very highly recommended.

Adventures with Words: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Much has been written about this book and deservedly so: its examination of life and death in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and how Frankl and others survived is extraordinary – and let us fervently pray that it remains extra – ordinary. But one of the things Frankl’s book does is remind usjust how much our circumstances and society determine how we behave. We would all like to think that if we had been born in the early 20th century in Germany we would have been one of the brave people who resisted Nazism and tried to smuggle the Jews to freedom. The events of the last two years have unfortunately shown that the vast majority of the population would happily go along with demonising a sub set of the population, particularly when encouraged to do so by those in power and those with loud media voices. A tiny, tiny percentage of the German population actively resisted the Nazis. We, you and I, would be no different today.

But Viktor Frankl, a German Jew, was in the part of the population that was demonised and destroyed. Frankl survived and his book is, in part, an exploration of why some men lived when others, faced with similar hardships, died. According to Frankl, the key factor in determining someone’s endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering is the ability to find some meaning in that suffering. While a devout Jew himself, Frankl was also a psychiatrist and, in examining the factors enabling survival, Frankl deliberately separated meaning from religious faith. While religious faith was very useful in providing a framework to understand and cope with the situation the concentration camp inmates were in, Frankl found that any meaning that could be found was helpful to the survival chances of the prisoners.

Frankl went on to found a school of psychiatry, called logotherapy, which argues that the search for a meaning to one’s life is the central human motivating force. He may well be right, once we take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into account and the ordinary necessities for living are accounted for.

But by divorcing meaning from its usual historical anchor, religious faith, Frankl also described the peculiar situation we find in the modern world. Now, the desperate search for meaning in a consumer world has led to people passionately embracing a whole variety of causes, from veganism to climate change. In itself, this is no bad thing. But problems arise were these people, activists, attempt, just as passionately, to impose these meanings they have found for themselves upon their fellows.

So the peculiar paradox of the 21st century is that we find ourselves having to cope with the fervent beliefs of people searching for meaning in places which simply do not have the moral or intellectual gravity to sustain the importance they attach to them. Hence the increasingly hysterical attempts to force norms on other people. The hysteria ramps up because, underlying all this frantic fury, is the unconscious realisation that the causes so many people have dedicated themselves simply do not carry the import they have ascribed to them. Such levels of cognitive dissonance call forth greater and greater efforts to bring the world into line with their imaginings, in a futile attempt to quiet the strumming strings of dissonance.

Today, we suffer for other people’s meanings. And Frankl unwittingly ushered this in.

Adventures with Words: Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

Defenders of the Faith by James Reston Jr

A lot happened between 1520 and 1536. James Reston Jr whizzes us around the world where it was happening, from Henry VIII’s attempts to extricate himself from his perfectly legitimate marriage to Catherine of Aragon, through to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a door and setting in train the Protestant Reformation. But the fact that the Reformation endured rather than being suppressed was in large part due to what was happening elsewhere, in particular the looming threat from the east: Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman Empire.

The sixteen years covered in Reston’s fast paced, gossipy book, an excellent example of popular history, revolves in particular around the confrontation between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and, by reason of canny Habsburg marriage diplomacy, ruler of most of Europe apart from France and England, and Suleiman, Emperor of the East. Where Charles was Holy Roman Emperor, Suleiman was Emperor of Constantinople. And while it is possible for there to be a plurality of kings, according to the lights of the time, there could be only one emperor. Both Suleiman and Charles considered themselves the one but Suleiman, with a realm that was less fissiparous, had the advantage. With the Turkish threat, Luther and the German princes who supported him had Charles and the Habsburg monarchy perpetually looking over their shoulders. Thus the Reformation was saved. But it’s clear that, had the weather been better, Suleiman might well have succeeded in his goal of taking Vienna and unlocking the gates of Europe. Then how differently might history have played out. But the spring and summer of 1529 were exceptionally cold and wet, bogging down the great Turkish supply train as it struggled westwards and forcing the Turks to abandon their heaviest cannons. Reaching Vienna, they put up a desultory attempt to storm the city but without the fine cannons that were their trump card, militarily, they could not breach the walls.

However, in an early example of spin, Suleiman and his advisors declared the expedition a victory and went back to Constantinople and celebrated it as such. One of the interesting facts we learn from this book is that propaganda is by no means a recent invention.

Overall, an engrossing and reader-friendly account of a crucial time, with Reston managing ably to delineate the various historical personages so that they each come across as distinctive personalities.