Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” read by George Guidall

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Thomas Moran (1859)

There are few short pieces in literature that have generated as many new stories as Robert Browning’s 1855 poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The story itself comes from an old folktale that inspired a moment in Shakespeare‘s King Lear:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.
— King Lear, III.4

As it was inspired by Child Rowland before it, Browning’s poem has inspired authors such as A.S. Byatt, John Connolly, Gordon R. Dickson, Neil Gaiman, Harper Lee, Alexander Theroux, P.G. Wodehouse, and Roger Zelazny. I don’t know if C.S. Lewis had Browning in mind as he sketched out the first few chapters of a Ransom transdimensional travel story, but his editor, Walter Hooper, no doubt did in naming it “The Dark Tower.” It inspired the Dr. Who 20th anniversary episode, “Five Doctors,” and a 1946 BBC radio play (see below). And, perhaps most famously, it inspired Stephen King‘s magnum opus, The Dark Tower cycle. King’s varied and sophisticated use of the poem makes his complex Dark Tower cycle a 5,000-page exegesis of the original poem. Indeed, the ending of The Dark Tower suggests that Margaret Atwood’s reading of the Browning’s “Childe Roland” as autobiographical could be a clue to reading King’s series.

What about J.R.R. Tolkien? Certainly, his Lord of the Rings is behind King’s Dark Tower, from mythic conception to the critical appearance of a Gollum-figure at the satisfying close of the cycle. But as we go back and back and back we find the tower and we find the quest. Sometimes that’s with Child Rolands of various shades, and sometimes not. It isn’t clear to me that Browning is behind either Lewis or Tolkien, but there is so much unknown in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” that the poem simply seems to invite response. We are meant, I think, to fill it out, to turn it around, to reshape it and reform it in other worlds.

And it is meant to be read, for it is a good poem. I have attached the poem, in case you have never taken ten minutes to read it all the way through. But I have also found a version read by George Guidall, who narrates a number of the audiobooks in the Dark Tower cycle. I hope you enjoy–and perhaps you, too, are meant to retell this story.



“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

Robert Browning (1812–89)

My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d 5
Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby.

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh 10
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly 15
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope 20
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,—
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

As when a sick man very near to death 25
Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, (“since all is o’er,” he saith,
“And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;”) 30

While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves,
And still the man hears all, and only craves 35
He may not shame such tender love and stay.

Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d 40
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?

So, quiet as despair, I turn’d from him,
That hateful cripple, out of his highway
Into the path the pointed. All the day 45
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.

For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two, 50
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’t was gone; gray plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remain’d to do.

So, on I went. I think I never saw 55
Such starv’d ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You ’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove. 60

No! penury, inertness and grimace,
In the strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See
Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,
“It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
’T is the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place, 65
Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”

If there push’d any ragged thistle=stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopp’d; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruis’d as to baulk 70
All hope of greenness? ’T is a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades prick’d the mud
Which underneath look’d kneaded up with blood. 75
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red, gaunt and collop’d neck a-strain, 80
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

I shut my eyes and turn’d them on my heart. 85
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I ask’d one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards—the soldier’s art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights. 90

Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he us’d. Alas, one night’s disgrace! 95
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.

Giles then, the soul of honor—there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good—but the scene shifts—faugh! what hangman hands 100
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!

Better this present than a past like that;
Back therefore to my darkening path again!
No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain. 105
Will the night send a howlet of a bat?
I asked: when something on the dismal flat
Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.

A sudden little river cross’d my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes. 110
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it froth’d by, might have been a bath
For the fiend’s glowing hoof—to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.

So petty yet so spiteful All along, 115
Low scrubby alders kneel’d down over it;
Drench’d willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate’er that was, roll’d by, deterr’d no whit. 120

Which, while I forded,—good saints, how I fear’d
To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
—It may have been a water-rat I spear’d, 125
But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.

Glad was I when I reach’d the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank 130
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poison’d tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage—

The fight must so have seem’d in that fell cirque.
What penn’d them there, with all the plain to choose?
No foot-print leading to that horrid mews, 135
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.

And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
What bad use was that engine for, that wheel, 140
Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men’s bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet’s tool, on earth left unaware,
Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.

Then came a bit of stubb’d ground, once a wood, 145
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood—
Bog, clay, and rubble, sand and stark black dearth. 150

Now blotches rankling, color’d gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
Broke into moss or substances like thus;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim 155
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.

And just as far as ever from the end,
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend, 160
Sail’d past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penn’d
That brush’d my cap—perchance the guide I sought.

For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains—with such name to grace 165
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surpris’d me,—solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.

Yet half I seem’d to recognize some trick
Of mischief happen’d to me, God knows when— 170
In a bad perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts—you ’re inside the den.

Burningly it came on me all at once, 175
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Couch’d like two bulls lock’d horn in horn in fight,
While, to the left, a tall scalp’d mountain … Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight! 180

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf 185
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

Not see? because of night perhaps?—Why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay, 190
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,—
“Now stab and end the creature—to the heft!”

Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it toll’d
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,— 195
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knell’d the woe of years.

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame 200
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

Note: With thanks to the WordPress editors of the article on this poem for the factoids and the photo. 

Posted in Fictional Worlds, Memorable Quotes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the UK’s Favourite Book

According to a OnePoll survey of 2,000 UK adults, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is Britain’s most popular book. It is an intriguing find, but not inconsistent with other surveys and with research by people like Stephanie Derrick (see here). The top 50 list as a whole is pretty intriguing. Six of the seven Harry Potter books are in the top 10, with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as the #3 book and J.K. Rowling as the top writer. The list is very film-adaptation driven, which is hardly surprising given the budgets–and occasionally the linked quality–of bestseller adaptations.

There are some surprises. That The Da Vinci Code makes #2 is a little disheartening given it is just an okay book (and a terrible movie with some beautiful parts). I don’t think in North America you would find as many 19th century books by authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Charles Dickens–also one of the UK’s favourite authors, a century and a half on. I’m surprised that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aren’t higher, but I struggle living in a world where people prefer Fifty Shades of Grey to Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Adams, The Hunger Games, or the great Candian books: Anne of Green Gables, Life of Pi, or The Handmaid’s Tale. Even Twilight is better, but no one asked me.

Intriguingly, The Daily Mail reports that Stephen King is a favourite author, though no book made the top 50. And women ten to read newer hot books while men read older titles. Crime is the most popular genre (but are those books on the list?), and Brits are only reading about 11 books a year, and wish they could read more. Still, it’s pleasing to see that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia is still loved, almost 70 years later.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

A Brief Note on the N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have just finished reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, which has the distinction of winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel in three consecutive years for each of the three novels in the series. Jemisin is a highly sophisticated world-builder, with gorgeous prose, rich characters, complex speculative world logic, and a critical discipline that brings a satisfying ending to the trilogy. I am tempted to write that Jemison sets a new standard from what CliFi can be, but it is really a new 21st-century invitation to possibilities for SciFi as a whole. Jemisin has Larry Niven’s capacity for structure and space as she imagines the deep future–a real pushback against the great near-future stories being produced these days.

Unfortunately for me, however, she also has J.G. Ballard’s capacity for darkness and ambiguity in character development and time-play. Combined with the precise use of a second-person storytelling voice in much of the trilogy, this was not an enjoyable series for me to read. After the first book, I found myself needing to will myself to read. Perhaps because I am a soft reader or because of my season of life, it was work to get through them.

And these are difficult books to read–intentionally so, I believe. I am sure that comparisons Octavia Butler abound, as both authors play with gender, race, and the sense of “other” in sophisticated ways. And both authors intend to alienate the reader, unwilling as they are to make simple parables and excelling in style. Finally, both authors cause us to ask questions about who we are as people, both individually and communally, but also as a race. While the comparison works between Jemisin and Butler–though I think it comes from them being both black American women authors writing SF–Jemison is much more complex in the technological aspects of her world’s structure. And I always feel a little more hope reading Butler, though Jemisin is still offering hope here, I believe.

Quite frankly, I finished the trilogy of curiosity, but also a sense of duty to such a groundbreaking author who in the last decade has either won or been nominated for most major awards. I read the trilogy as a way to honour the skill she shows, but I could never break into enjoyment. Overall, I think the series warrants four stars, but for those that love it–and there are many–there is no shame in giving five stars (as I did for the first book).

Added note: Now that I’ve been away from the series for a few days, I am struck by how much the fictional world has stuck with me. It is usually the poetry or characters that do that, which I think speaks to Jemisin’s skill as a world-builder.

View all my reviews

Posted in Fictional Worlds, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“This Year of the Atom”: A Poem on the Anniversary of Hiroshima, by Joy Davidman

At 8:15 local time on Aug 6, 1945, American airship Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing about 100,000 people, most of them civilians. On Aug 9th, the American military would reassert their ability to waste the countryside by dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. These bombings led Japan to surrender on Aug 15th–a politically significant moment as the atomic bombs left Japan “rattling with darkness” both in frame and psyche. The next day, C.S. Lewis would release his critique of unrestrained commitment to systems of technological progress (technocracy), That Hideous Strength. The day after that, George Orwell published Animal Farm, the 20th century’s most famous criticism of political tyranny.

I never really know what to say on the anniversary of Hiroshima. I lived in Japan for a couple of formative years in my life, but never made the pilgrimage to the memorial site in Hiroshima. The event is full of conflict for me, as if humanity–America, specifically–broke a pact with humanity, and won the peace that closed WWII, perhaps the most invested, ideological, and inhumane event of human history. What can I say in a blog that drops at the same (local) time and on the same day as Hiroshima?

Instead of reflecting on the event, I’ve decided to share “atomic dread” from the American perspective, to share something about the internal conflict rather than geopolitics or human wasting. The poem below is by Joy Davidman, a struggling Marxist in a marriage that is starting to slide as her ideology becomes less sure for her. According to biographer Anna Santamaria, Joy’s worry about family illness, her postpartum depression, and her husband’s instability were woven into the fear and worry of the atomic era. This poem, which I find quite striking, makes for a very personal response to the bomb–a bomb that devasted Japanese bodies and shaped the soul of the nation.

But it also reminded me of how, as an overly imaginative child in the heightened nuclear anxieties before the collapse of the Soviet Union, “atomic dread” works its way deep into the soul. Though my perspective is better now, that dread is our inheritance. Our culture’s armageddonophilia continues and the clock is never far from midnight–most recently as America and Russia have allowed one of their nuclear treaties to expire. If you look at a globe, you might be interested to note what single country shares borders with the USSR and the USA. This, apparently, is the year of the atom too.

The Year of the Atom

This is it;
this is the sunless moment the black hole
deep in space where no stars set foot
and the earth goes voyaging and gets lost.
This is the cavern in the belly of time
rattling with darkness.

Here the babies lie
of the rotten womb now; corrupt, and die.
Who chokes us at birth? blows our light out?
breaks the mirror of our eyes across
and kicks us out of the back door of life?
Who says no to us?
Who but ourselves
lovesick for fingers that are let lie quiet
being fleshless; weeping with love
for lying still in the hidey-hole of ground
six feet deep, a paradise of sleep,
while the world rolls its hoop.

Sun come up;
revive, bloody and immaculate courage
of the live body. Reestablish us;
ordain, hearten, and reanimate us.
Let this wriggler, this progressor on his belly
extend the impossible joints of his legs and get up.
Remember it was done before, out of the slime.

We are stuck in the spiderweb of time,
juiceless, hung between this hour and next,
while the jaws go suck suck.

Well well;
who’s afraid of spiders?

Sun come up;
let the web shrivel and the suspended men
walk on their legs across the living world.

This is it, this is nadir, the moment
wet and black at the bottom of the world
before the rotation lifts the ocean over the horizon
bright, painted with brightness,
wearing light, heartbreaking light.

The light is quiet.
The dry bones lift themselves out of the bottomless ditch,
assemble into man and go to get their breakfast.

Sun, rise and shine.

“This Year of the Atom” by Joy Davidman, transcribed from Don W. King, ed., A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems, 243-5.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Writing Tips by Stephen King: Infographic and Video

I know that this post is less than a year old, but I still think the infographic is pretty cool. Plus, I found a funny short video from the Late Show with Stephen Colbert that is worth sharing. No matter how far away the dream of successful career writing might be, Stephen King is able to invite us to the desk where we actually write.

I’ve blogged from time to time about the importance of Stephen King‘s On Writing. It is a funny, moving, flawed, and priceless resource for those who dream of having their journal sketches become hardcover books.

On Writing is one of the books that changed my life.

It is also, I think, a pretty good resource for anyone who taps out their living on a keyboard–from storytellers to journalists, from preachers to teachers, from bloggers to speechwriters, from scholarly researchers to policy writers.

In preparing for my previous post on Stephen King and Danse Macabre I stumbled across this poster. Though it has the kind of professional staleness you’d expect from a publisher–boy, I’d love to see a good edgy graphic novelist or digital designer get ahold of this book–I think it is a great reminder of some of the bright practical points of On Writing. It wasn’t these 14 things that meant so much to me but the book as a whole, warts and zippers running up the back of the monster’s back and everything. But I rarely forget these 14 points, which make a great addition to the writing rules from L.M. Montgomery, Olivia Butler and Robert Heinlein that we’ve already discovered. It’s true, these are all writing hacks compared to many other elegant writers of writing books. Still, you know who I am talking about, and I think these rules go a long way to transcending genre and the limitations of labels.

I hope this little post from A Pilgrim in Narnia helps you along your way, whether your destination is the bestseller shelf or the bargain bin, the lectern or the pulpit, a product user or the legislative assembly, your little writing circle or the entire twitterverse.

Posted in Memorable Quotes, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

When in Rome: A Letter to the Editor on Language, Immigration, and Culture

Note: Nearly four years ago, one of the regular local Letter to the Editor writers complained of a phenomenon at our largest grocery store. He spoke about how a group of “Asians” were speaking loudly to one another in “Chinese” in a way that he found disruptive. The editorializer then used the opportunity to say that while he was as welcoming as the next guy to people “from away,” this is Prince Edward Island, Canada. Newcomers should learn to speak English, as we do. The newsprint philosopher ended his editorial with the hung elliptical phrase, “When in Rome….”

At the time I read the letter I was working for our Provincial Government, primarily writing immigration policy. So I didn’t feel like I could respond to this letter, as tempting as it was. My platform was government policy, legislation, and political announcements, not our local paper, The Guardian, which “covers the Island like the dew.” Our little province has the lowest economic development and wages per person of any in Canada, but because of a strong, progressive, highly controlled immigration and development policy, we are the fastest growing Canadian region in terms of wealth and population.

As I am looking at the potential of returning to some work on immigration, I thought I would respond in a more anonymous way now. Contextually, Brexit continues, disastrously, and the refugee crisis continues. It is looking like the American 2020 election will be fought around immigration and cultural issues like the 2018 midterms were fought on gender and safety issues. Globally speaking, it is a period of radical human movement, both forced and voluntary, economic and social. In concert with religious development and issues of human-tech interface, human migration is the most powerful question of the 21st century. This, then, is my “When in Rome…” response, slightly delayed, still problematic, and yet still relevant.

Dear Editor,

I was immediately inspired by the concluding words of Alfred Luftmensch’s heartfelt Letter to the Editor of last week. After complaining about loud, interruptive chatter by “Asians” speaking “Chinese” at the Superstore, he wrote to remind newcomers to PEI that when you have joined our beautiful Island culture, you should learn the language. “When in Rome…,” he concluded, invited us to add in, “Do as the Romans Do.”

I think we can first set aside one of Mr Luftmensch’s complaints. Loudtalking is, I agree, a terrible thing—on my list of social diseases with dogwalkers who forget their scat bag and frequent writers of letters to the editor. Grocery store loudtalking is, however, a universal phenomenon. No one culture can claim that social ill as its own—not even the collection of 48 countries and thousands of local cultures that Mr Luftmensch calls “Asian.”

At the heart of Mr Luftmensch’s concern is the language itself, and the feeling of cultural connection it brings. As I was thinking of “When in Rome,” I began to wonder: “what did the Romans do regarding language?” That’s the point, after all. It is here we see that Mr Luftmensch may not have fully thought through his argument.

If we ask on the street what language they speak in Rome, we might get three kinds of answers. Culturally aware people will no doubt say “Italian,” while some more bookish people, thinking of their once-upon-a-time undergraduate courses, might say “Latin.” Another group of more sassy respondents will say, “people in Rome speak all kinds of languages.” Setting aside that last point for a moment, we are already in a bit of a quandary.

Doing as the Romans do, language-wise, depends on when we are in Rome.

Old Latin combined with politics, poetry, and an adapted Greek alphabet to become Classical Latin, which Islanders used to learn in school when our culture believed that education rather than economic development was at the heart of a civilization. Latin developed over time, taking on local and ecclesiastical flavours. After Rome’s fall, in the flux of Europe’s development, Latin became French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, and Catalan. Latin influenced English in at least four big waves, so that—as Mr Luftmensch no doubt knows—Canada’s “sea to shining sea” motto is in Latin, as are the mottos of many states and most colleges. Most locally, Latin developed into Italian, though most visitors find it pretty easy to order great food and drink in English. And Latin remains the official language of the Vatican, though when the Bishops gather, the ecclesiastical gossip is usually in English, Spanish, or a shared foreign tongue.

So it’s a hard thing, speaking as the Romans speak. Even at the height of Roman power under the Emperors after Caesar, Greek was spoken throughout the Empire and even in the marketplaces in the capital. As one of the supercities of the Mediterranean, people spoke all kinds of languages, using Latin only when necessary. When in Rome, it seems, one speaks whatever language works. Then, as now, knowing multiple languages is a valuable skill.

But even if we could say, “When in Rome, speak Romish,” what would we say of Prince Edward Island?

Mr Luftmensch assumes that English is our native tongue. It’s true that PEI was colonized by Scots, the Irish, and the English, and we used English as a common language even though the Scottish were the largest group of immigrants. But would Acadians agree that newcomers need to speak English? 20% of historical European immigration was French. 4% of Islanders continue to speak French as their first language, and 12% of us can speak either official language, French or English.

But that question of which language is the native tongue of PEI leads to a deeper question. If this is “Rome,” what did the first immigrants do? Did they adapt to the local area, learning to speak Mi’kmaq as thousands of Scots and Russians and Chinese have learned to speak English since?

Not even a little bit. Except for a few missionaries, no one learned Mi’kmaq in any meaningful way. Instead, as immigrants, we Europeans brought our culture with us and reshaped the world we inhabited.

So with due respect, Mr Luftmensch, the conclusion of your letter shows that you have simply not thought the question through.

Meanwhile, it is true that grocery stores attract loudtalkers. For my part, I wish we had learned Mi’kmaq when we arrived. I wish a lot of things were different. But in the world as it is, I like hearing snatches of Japanese from excited summer tourists. I like seeing old people gossip in Mandarin or Dutch or young people gather to joke in Arabic or Korean. “Rome” has always been an adapting, growing, international place where many peoples gathered, and it means that parts of the culture we love will change. That is inevitable. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it fell in one. And from that fall 1610 years ago, it became something new.

Practically speaking, most newcomers will learn English. They will adapt to our culture and make changes to their lives. But we are not the same culture we were 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Today, our newcomers are part of what will continue to remake the Island. For when in Rome, we do as the Romans do: We adapt.

Note: Photos taken from the site of the DiverseCity Multicultural Festival which is run by the PEI Association of Newcomers, the PEI government, or The Guardian.

Posted in Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Tolkien’s Last Friend in Oxford when the World Went to War, by John Garth

john garth great warOnce again, John Garth‘s careful historical research on WWI and J.R.R. Tolkien and compelling storytelling have produced a beautiful piece. This is the story of Colin Cullis, a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien who survived the war only to pass away 100 years ago this month. For historian buffs or Tolkien fans–or for people who find the stories of everyday people worth hearing about–this is a post worth reading.

John Garth

Colin Cullis and JRR Tolkien Colin Cullis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1912 (courtesy of H.D.L. Thompson)

‘Not a single man I know is up except Cullis,’ Tolkien lamented at the start of his final year as an Oxford student. It was 1914, war had just broken out, and their friends had left in droves to enlist in the army.

Cullis died one hundred years ago this month – not a victim of war, but as young as many who were. Outside my own books, nothing new has been written about him since Humphrey Carpenter published the snippet above in his 1977 biography of Tolkien. He is not one of the T.C.B.S. – the ‘immortal four’ who play a central role in my Tolkien and the Great War. Yet Cullis was a good friend to Tolkien, and he was one of the few people on hand in that final Oxford year…

View original post 2,120 more words

Posted in Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment