Monday, May 31, 2010

For Memorial Day: Sullivan Ballou's Letter to His Wife, Sarah

This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read, heard, or seen. It's a letter written by Sullivan Ballou, a Union soldier, to his wife, Sarah, on July 14, 1861, a week before he fought in the First Battle of Bull Run. I first heard it on Ken Burns's documentary, The Civil War. I've now listened to it many times and every time I hear it, I sob. It's a humbling look at a soldier's immense sacrifice and sense of duty towards his country, as well as a powerful declaration of love from one man to his wife. I can't even fathom what it must have been like for Ballou to say goodbye to his wife and children and go off to war, but I am grateful we have this letter to remember him by.

With my thanks to the fallen, Happy Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"My blood will have been well spent." A Look at Anne of the Thousand Days

"Commend me to his Majesty, and tell him that he has ever been constant in his career of advancing me. From a private gentlewoman he made me a marchioness, from a marchioness a Queen; and now that he has no higher degree of honour left, he gives my innocence the crown of martyrdom as a saint in heaven." --Anne Boleyn, 19 May 1536

Oh, Henry VIII. You sick son of a bazooka. There are few monarchs as fascinating (in a train wreck sort of way) as that English cousin of Bluebeard, Hal Tudor the Eighth. And of course, his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Or as they're more commonly known in some circles: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived--a rhyme that comes in handy during a Pub Quiz Night after you've had a few too many trysts with the demon liquor to keep all the Catherines and Annes straight. The history of Henry VIII and his wives is as riveting and scandalous as any paperback romance--with the added bonus that it's true. One night when I was eleven years old, I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch Anne of the Thousand Days, an underrated gem from 1968 about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife and the first to die by execution (her cousin, Katherine Howard, number five, would suffer the same fate) whose reign lasted roughly 1,000 days. It went on to be one of my favorite movies and kindled my love of Tudor history.

Despairing over his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and her "failure" to produce a son (their daughter, Mary--Bloody Mary, that is--would briefly reign), Henry divorced her and married Anne Boleyn in 1533. To do so, he broke with the Catholic Church--which would not grant him the divorce--securing his new wife and years of religious turmoil for his people. However, after becoming queen, Anne's "success" (or lack thereof) bearing children eerily mirrored Catherine's. She produced one daughter, Elizabeth but all her later pregnancies over the course of the three year marriage, ended in stillbirths and miscarriages. In a fury, Henry determined to get rid of Anne and had her arrested on fabricated charges of adultery. Her supposed lovers included several prominent noblemen, a court musician, and even her brother, George. To the surprise of no one, she was found guilty and beheaded on May 19th, 1536. Today! So naturally, what better use for this electronic soundboard than to commemorate executions and the movies they inspire?

Based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Charles Jarrott, Anne of the Thousand Days is not the best movie to watch if you want the truth and nothing but the truth. It took its fair share of liberties including its portrayal of Anne herself. Anne is definitely the good guy here--albeit a flawed one--while in real life, she could be cruel and even ruthless. Here those elements are mostly pushed aside. But the history is still there (besides anything's better than The Other Boleyn Girl). Here Anne comes alive as a passionate, willful woman ahead of her time who sacrifices her life for her daughter's honor and birthright. All of which has basis in fact. Richard Burton makes a great Henry and I'll always have a special place in my heart for him in the role but Genevieve Bujold owns the movie as Anne. It would not be half as awesome without her. She's intelligent, fiery, wry, and constantly in control of herself even as the events around her spiral out of control. Her slight French accent even works to the movie's advantage. The real Anne Boleyn spent much of her life in France, learning courtly ways among members of French noblity. When she returned, it was said she seemed more French than English. Bujold is brilliant all around. I can't call it an unsung performance (she got an Oscar nomination for it) but it's definitely underrated. And it deserves to be appreciated.

Below is one of the best scenes of the movie. A confrontation between Henry and Anne just before her death in which Anne basically predicts the future. Did this happen in real life? Probably not. But it does drive home how incredible the future Elizabeth I's reign really was. Knowing that she managed to become one of England's greatest monarchs in spite of the tremendous odds against her makes the movie, and particularly this scene, powerfully moving and ultimately triumphant.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Guide to the Greenwood: A Look at The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess et. all

"'Young man, I think you're dying.'" --Barbara Allen, The Book of Ballads

It's May! The Lusty Month of May! The first of May is a day to, appropriately, go "a-Maying," an activity that can involve anything from spending a lot of time outside, to having picnics, singing, gathering flowers, watching Camelot, performing a ritualisitc pagan sacrifice or participating in an orgy. As you do. Alas, since neither sacrifices nor orgies were going on in my local public park this year, I had to make do with simply sitting on a bench with a good book and taking in the delicious scenery.

I also watched Camelot. And you should too! It was lovely.

Ah, but be warned. May, though beautiful, can also be a mighty dangerous month--as if bomb scares, oil spills, flooding, and tornadoes weren't enough to clue you in to that fact. However, the dangers to be found here belong to a (mercifully) fantastic realm, well-famed in folklore and song, and brought to vivid life in The Book of Ballads, a wonderful graphic novel illustrated by Charles Vess which retells thirteen classic ballads.

Now as Glee taught us, a ballad is a "song that tells a story." However, unlike many of the songs used in that particular episode of Glee, the ballads that existed as a part of English, Scottish, and Irish folklore for centuries actually tell stories. Stories like: hero meets villain, struggle ensues, magical forces intervene, love is denied, all live happily ever after....or maybe not. They have a lot in common with fairy tales: their evolution in the oral tradition, their staying power (many of the ballads in this book are still recorded by popular musicians), and their elements of magic, the macabre, and the just plain bizarre. They even have fairies...but again, be wary. These are not your Pixie Hollow fairies. These are fairies as God and the collective unconscious intended: downright cruel sociopaths who steal human beings of all ages and treat them like personal playthings. You do NOT want to go to Fairyland. Unless of course, you're rescuing your kidnapped sister. In that case, kill everybody you speak to and do NOT eat the food. Bonus points if you can guess which fairy tale I'm referencing.

(Answer: Childe Rowland)

Anyway, such is the world of The Book of Ballads. A world where cleverness, sacrifice, will-power, repetition, and rhyme might be the only things that can save you from untold pain and destruction, and where stupidity is punished. Harshly. Vess's illustrations are beautiful, layered, and nuanced. He manages to convey worlds of emotion in his characters' eyes. Some of his illustrations also add elements that aren't in the text, adding a dimension all his own to the stories. Many of them are also genuinely terrifying. If the Devil or demons frighten you, you probably won't enjoy this. Again you have been warned.

Some of the biggest names in contemporary fantasy contributed their own versions of these ballads for Vess to illustrate. Some of these are straight forward retellings (Neil Gaiman's "The False Knight on the Road"), some are modern-day transfers (Charles de Lint's "Twa Corbies"), and some are refreshing revisions with details added to explain and/or enrich them. For example, Jane Yolen turns the king of "King Henry" into Henry VIII, spinning a semi-historical tale about the English people's hatred of Anne Boleyn and the many urban legends that arose about her as a result (and played no small part in leading to her death). Only Elaine Lee's "Tam-Lin" disappointed me. I found the changes unnecessary and ultimately confusing. If it ain't broke etc. In fairness to Lee, however, I thought "Tam-Lin" was a version of "The Elf Knight" and it isn't. But what can you do? A version of the actual ballad follows each retelling in verse form sans illustrations, allowing for convenient comparison.

My favorite story in the book was Midori Snyder's take on "Barbara Allen." Of all the ballads in the book, I was most familiar with this one going in. I studied it in high school and college and it plays a prominent role in the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, which I have seen many times, but despite all this, I never thought to be bewildered by the very strange story it tells. This story concerns a fair maid, the Barbara Allen of the title, who is called to the deathbed of the man, Sweet William, dying of unrequited love for her (as you do in ballads). However, the only comfort she can give him is the cold statement, "Young man, I think you're dying" even though she reveals after his death that she did actually love him. The tragic story ends in mystery. What was the relationship between these two? Why did he die of love for her? Why did she refuse to reciprocate if she felt the same? Snyder provides answers and the result is so perfect, it made me love and appreciate the song in a way I never did before.

I highly recommend The Book of Ballads. It fanned my ever-growing love for graphic novels and allowed me to indulge my constant passion for folklore. It also provides solutions to important dilemmas that can creep in and disrupt even the calmest life. What are you supposed to do, for example, when you meet the demon who killed your father on your way to school? Or when your fiancé of many years ago, supposedly long dead, knocks on your door and asks you to abandon your husband and child and run away with him? Or when the local witch is determined to make you her lover? Or when Satan shows up and...well, does Satan really need to do anything besides show up? Isn't just showing up enough? The answers to these and many more burning questions can all be found in The Book of Ballads. Get thee to your local library. May is a dangerous month and the Greenwood is a scary place. Go now and don't say I didn't warn you.

But first. Just for kicks and wiggles. My favorite movie May Day....