I know this blog isn’t really about literature and reading, but I just finished two Shakespeare plays that I can’t resist writing about. I hope some of you will find this an interesting digression from our usual topics of Christianity, Myers-Briggs, and personal growth. And if not, don’t worry — I’ll get back to my more usual type of posts this weekend.
These last two plays are The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice and Measure for Measure. On the surface they’re very different stories, but I was surprised to find they touch on the same core themes. Lust, murder, and deception lie at the center of both plays, and these topics are handled in a way that puts me in mind of things happening today in our modern society.
Do you ever wish someone loved you enough to die for you?
Not that you’d actually want them to die, of course. But you’d just like to know that someone cared enough about you that they would give up their life to keep you safe and well.
I was thinking about that last week while reading A Tale of Two Cities. I’d planned on reading two of Charles Dickens’s books that I’d never read before for my Classics Club list, but ended up swapping out Bleak House for re-reading A Tale of Two Cities. I liked it so well when I read it 12 or 13 years ago in high school that I wanted to see if it still captured my interested.
I think it’s safe to say this book is just as powerful now as it was back then, considering the last few chapters left me in tears. I love books that are so real, so well written that they can make me cry and let me tell you there were plenty of that by the last sentence. Read more →
Today we’re going to talk about INFJ heroes in fiction, especially male heroes. But before we get to that, let’s talk about Russian literature for a moment. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky opens with an apologetic explanation from the narrator about his hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov. Here are a few highlights:
“While I do call Alexei Fyodorovich my hero, still, I myself know that he is by no means a great man …
One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention …
If I, that is, the biographer himself, think that even one novel may, perhaps, be unwarranted for such a humble and indefinite hero, then how will it look if I appear with two; and what can explain such presumption on my part?” (p.3-4, Pevear/Volokhonsky translation)
As you may have guessed from the title of this post, Alyosha is an INFJ (most characters and the narrator use this nickname throughout the novel. In the Cyrillic alphabet, Alyosha is two letters shorter than Alexei, which makes this something like calling a man named Robert “Bob”). And I suspect that it’s his personality type that makes the narrator so worried about how people will respond to his hero.
It’s not that there aren’t other INFJ heroes in fiction. Just take a look at my post about 10 Stories You’ll Relate To If You’re An INFJ if you want some examples. Jane Eyre, Amélie, Yoda, and Atticus Finch are all INFJs in fiction who play a hero role. But even though there are male characters on this list, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if Alyosha was woman with all the same personality characteristics the narrator wouldn’t have felt the need to apologize for her.
There’s a good chance that if I mention The Swiss Family Robinson you know what I’m talking about. This story of a castaway family has enchanted readers since its first publication in 1812. Even if you haven’t read a version, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or at least heard of one of the film adaptations.
I don’t remember if I first came across this story as a Great Illustrated Classics book or through the 1960 Disney film. I’m sure one led quickly to the other. Shortly after that, I found a more “grown-up” version of the book in my favorite book store. It was a 1968 edition that was about 12 tall by 8 inches wide, and the margins were filled with illustrations of animals and explanatory notes. I read it so much the book literally fell apart.
The Great Fanfic Conspiracy
When I started looking for a replacement copy, I realized this book was originally written in German and that there was more than one English version to choose from. This led to a startling revelation.
I’m not sure what to write about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow (1888). It’s a fun story, and it makes me want to either read Shakespeare or re-watch The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses. Or both — both would be good. But I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot to talk about for a Classics Club book post.
Maybe I should write a post about BlacKkKlansman instead, since I just watched that movie yesterday and I have lots of thoughts about it swirling around. (In short, I thought it was a very well-done movie about an important subject, but I felt the director undermined its message by adding news footage on the end that tied this story of the past to a specific incident and president of today. You don’t need to spoon-feed viewers your ideas. Let us make the connection ourselves.)
Anyways, that’s off-topic. The Black Arrow is about political and ideological groups fighting each other, characters who feel torn between two sides of an issue, someone who’s pretending to be something they aren’t, villains who think they’re better than everyone else, and a crusader-type character avenging oppression and injustice.
Actually you could use all those descriptions of BlacKkKlansman, too, even though the two stories are really nothing alike. I guess it just goes to show how themes in story telling can span different cultures and centuries. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Take fairy tales, for example. There are over 900 versions of Cinderella and nearly every culture has its own take on the story. Why? Did the story start one place and somehow travel that much? Or is it due to something like Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious?
And we’re off-topic again. Back to Stevenson. The Black Arrow is a loosely historical story set during the War of the Roses. The main character is Richard “Dick” Shelton, who i’m afraid I didn’t care about at all for the first couple chapters. Actually, I didn’t care much about him by the end of the book either even though he does experience some basic character growth. He seems stubbornly determined not to think about what’s going on around him and that irritates me.
Initially, young Shelton picks a side in the political conflict just because that’s the side his guardian is on. Then, after he learns his guardian killed his father, Dick declares for the other side. And he sticks with that decision because it’s dishonorable to flop back and forth even though he hasn’t got a clue what he’s fighting against or in support of. I know lots of people fight for causes they don’t really understand, but should the hero of a book be killing people based on what was for him a mostly arbitrary decision?
In similarly oblivious fashion, Dick Shelton seems to be the only character who doesn’t know John Matcham is actually a disguised woman even though he spends several days traveling alone with her. As soon as he finds out John is actually Joanna Sedley, though, Dick promptly proposes marriage. He doesn’t know much more about her than that she’s female and they have a common enemy in their mutual guardian, but apparently it’s enough to avow undying love. I’m not impressed with him.
My few complaints aside, The Black Arrow is a fun adventure story and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Still, this probably isn’t a book that I’ll re-read again (I’d read it once around high school) nor one of the classics that I’ll think much about. On another side-note, I appreciated the author’s notes about where he changed historical facts to fit his story. I have no problem with writers taking a certain amount of creative liberties with history, but if you’re going to write historical fiction it’s nice to know when and how you’re stepping away from the facts.
Honestly, this is my favorite way to learn history — read it in fictional form, then look-up how close it is to being accurate. Mara: Daughter of the Nile (while not historically accurate) got me interested in ancient Egypt. I really didn’t care much about the founding fathers (though my history-loving mother made sure I read plenty of non-fiction while we were homeschooling) until listening to Hamilton. I guess I’m just more intrigued by stories and characters than by descriptions of events and people, so when someone offers me real events as stories and historical people as characters I’m hooked.
I realized after my last Classics Club post that I’m bad at writing book reviews. I’d intended to just write a short “this is what the books are like, this is what I thought” post for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels but it turned into an essay on what makes a strong female character and the state of modern feminism. I think I’ll give up on book reviews. Apparently I can only write thoughtful, rambling essays.
That’s not a bad thing though, right? These are classics, after all. People have been writing reviews of them for decades or centuries. If you want to find out about the plot you can go on Goodreads. I’d much rather talk about the ideas prompted by these great books. And I think you might rather read about that, too.
NOTE: this post contains spoilers but not enough, I think, to ruin the book for you
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A Perfect Fantasy Book
I feel like The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle* should have been a re-read for me, but this was the first time I’d read it. You’d think as much as I love unicorns and fantasy novels I’d have picked this one up earlier. Especially considering how much everyone loves it. Even the guy who wrote the best fantasy book I’ve ever read says, “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again” (Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind*).
On the surface, The Last Unicorn seems like a pretty simple book. A unicorn overhears two men say there aren’t any unicorns left in the world. Worried that she might be the last one, she goes out searching for other unicorns and meets with the sort of adventures you’d expect in a fantasy novel. There’s a wizard, a merry band of outlaws, a wise woman, a curse, a wicked king, and heroic prince, a talking cat, and a beautiful princess. But there’s so much more than that, too.
How People See You
There’s a lot going on in this relatively short book, so I’m just going to focus on one theme that I found particularly interesting. When the unicorn first sets out on her search, I expected that problems would arise when people spotted a unicorn walking down the road. But all they see is a white mare. The unicorn is puzzled.
“I suppose I could understand if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated unicorns and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else — what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?”(p. 11).