The West Oversea experiment

Last week we blogged about Dan Brown’s new book, which, despite its awful writing and worse themes, is destined to sell untold millions of copies. We contrasted that with the new novel by Lars Walker, who hangs out at this blog, which is very well written and deserves a wide audience. See my review of his book West Oversea. In a comment, Lars made the excellent point that many “well written” literary novels are not very enjoyable to read, due to the nature of the contemporary artistic scene. His book about Vikings, on the contrary, is both well-written and enjoyable to read, a real-page-turner, full of excitement, wonder, and imaginative Christian themes.

I propose that we mobilize the vast Cranach republic to help bring attention to this novel. As of the time I write this, the book ranks #915,845 in sales on Amazon. If people buy even a relatively small number of books in a brief interval, that can send the Amazon rankings soaring. A book with a soaring ranking can attract other buyers. That sends the ranking up even higher. Which attracts even more buyers, leading potentially to viral hype and best-seller status in all the bookstores. Let’s buy Lars’s novel from Amazon in large quantities and see how high we can gin up the rankings.

We buy it, then the trendy types will buy it. Then the fashion-followers will buy it. Whereupon a significant number of them will become Christians. Which will make Christianity trendy and fashionable. But then the trendy and fashionable Christians will stop caring about being trendy and fashionable. At that point, the civilization will be saved. It’s worth a try.

Buy it here and you will also help this blog. Click the links or the picture. The book is West Oversea: A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure and Faith

Conversations with the Wittenberg Playwright #2

Continuing the conversation with David Davalos, the author of Wittenberg, this is what I wrote back after the message I posted last time:


How good of you to write! I had wanted to come back to Maryland on the day you were speaking and to hear the reading of your play about Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli. That would have been some long drives, but then I got sick, making it all a moot point. So I greatly appreciate your responding to my review, and going so far as to address some of my questions. And to give me a copy of your play is extremely generous and helpful. Just leafing through it shows me an abundance of things I missed.

Would you mind if I posted your comments about your play on my blog? Speaking as the English professor that I am, what you say about your intentions could be of great help to future students and directors of your play, which I really do believe has artistic staying power. Would that they had blogs in Shakespeare’s day so that he would explain what he had intended with that Hamlet character!

Your explanations about the points I had some problems with are very helpful. With Faust, it is true that he is an archetype. But he is an archetype of a man who sells his soul to the devil; that is, the archetype of a man who wants something so badly (knowledge in Marlowe; experience in Goethe; artistic success in Thomas Mann; the American dream in St. Vincent Benet) that he would give up his soul for it (in all the senses that can mean). So for the archetype to fully work, it seems to me, the character has to pay a price, a tragic price, for what he yearns for. Yes, in Marlowe, he is damned, though it’s evident that he doesn’t have to be, that he can repent and is close to repentance till the very end, but in that last scene, when he opens his mouth to pray for rescue to Christ, he ends up praying to Satan instead. In Goethe’s version, he is indeed saved, but only because Gretchen, an innocent and naive girl whom he seduced, got pregnant, and drove to suicide, nevertheless forgave him and interceded for him in Heaven. Thus, he is saved because he is redeemed–by the innocent suffering and death of Gretchen rather than Christ, but the meaning is the same–but this also involved his guilt and his attempt to atone for that guilt by using his powers in an effort to do good. All of the manifestations of the Faust archetype have that tragic dimension that I missed in yours. I do recall some lines that might point in that direction, and I suspect when I read your script I will see it more, and, after all, you were writing a comedy rather than a tragedy, but still. From another angle, there is this: Goethe’s Faust is all enamored with the Eternal Feminine, of course, but what he forgets is that Gretchen is not just his ideal, but an actual, particular human being, whom he ends up, with all of his narcisstic idealism, destroying. You did have that great moment in your play in which the prostitute refuses to go along with Faust’s Eternal Feminine fetish to his great agony, but she isn’t quite the Gretchen figure whom he victimizes, feels remorse for, and yet surprisingly experiences her unmerited love. I think that kind of humanizing of the Eternal Feminine character a little more would have also made the sexual stuff seem less coarse. But, again, my dissatisfaction with the Faust figure–my sense that his destiny is not prefigured in the way Luther’s and Hamlet’s is–does not mean that I don’t love the play!

The depth of learning that has gone into this play is staggering. I mean, I have taught “Hamlet,” Marlowe, and Goethe for years and have a personal interest in Luther, being indeed a Lutheran, but your references and allusions and underlying structures and all are rich and perceptive. So you knew about Rheticus, who inspired you for the masterful things you do with the Copernical cosmology and how disorienting that had to be. Knowing more than you actually use, while drawing on it, is a sign of true scholarship, and that you handle it so lightly and so wittily is a sign of true mastery.

Can I ask where you come down on these issues? You know your theology. Do you consider yourself a Christian of any kind? I know artists don’t like to answer questions like that, but I won’t categorize you. I am just curious.

Anyway, as Emerson said to Whitman, with the same sense of discovery that I feel, I greet you at the beginning of a great career. (Though I’m sure “Wittenberg” isn’t the actual beginning, since you must have gained a lot of experience already to have written such a good play.) I’d like to follow what you’re doing–hearing about other productions of “Wittenberg,” hearing about what else you are working on, and just being a fan.

With many regards and accolades,


Conversations with the Wittenberg playwright #1

You may recall that I recently blogged about a play I recently attended entitled Wittenberg, which is about three denizens of that university interacting with each other: Faustus, Hamlet, and Luther. Click here for my review, which you may want to review for what follows.

Well, David Davalos, who wrote the play, read what I had to say and was kind enough to respond. This has provoked an interesting correspondence, parts of which, with his permission, I thought I’d share. After all, wouldn’t it have been great if we had blogs in Shakespeare’s day, and he could have explained what he REALLY meant? Mr. Davalos, I think, is an extraordinarily promising writer, so I post this exchange in the interest of future literary historians.

Guten tag —

I just wanted to take a moment to thank you so much for your comments about the Rep Stage production of the play. I’m so glad — relieved! — that you enjoyed it and found it worthwhile, especially given your background and area of expertise.

I also wanted to address some of your questions/concerns, to at least explain what my intentions were with the specific issues you raise. Working in the theatre can sometimes be like playing in a hall of mirrors, with the playscript reflected in the specific production reflected in the given performance before a particular audience — ultimately every audience member brings his own constructivist context into the theatre with him and walks out with his own personal reaction/interpretation — but I can tell you what I was thinking when I wrote the damned thing, for what it may be worth.

Regarding Faustus’ fate at the end of the play, I looked at it like this: Luther is an actual person, Hamlet is a literary character, but Faustus is in many ways primarily an archetype. Accordingly, Luther’s fate is determined by history and Hamlet’s by the conclusion of Shakespeare’s play, but depending on whether you read Marlowe or Goethe (to pick the two preeminent versions of the legend) Faustus is either damned or redeemed, respectively. I liked that ambiguity, that uncertainty, and wanted to leave some of it in place for the audience to decide Faustus’ ultimate disposition for themselves (choice, after all, being one of the main concerns of the play).

The Song of Songs section is there to depict Luther and Faustus each in communion with their respective conceptions of the divine: Luther’s a spiritual loving God and Faustus’ the ecstatic consummation of carnal union with the woman he loves. The dual scene is also an illustration of the play’s concern with hermeneutics (e.g., Luther’s interpretation of Paul, or the various interpretations of Hamlet’s dream). Luther posits the traditional interpretation of The Song as an allegory of Christ’s love for His church, where the Faustian interpretation takes the text literally as an expression of erotic desire. (Granted, Benedict splits the difference in Deus Caritas Est, but that’s just under 500 years too late for the purposes of the play.) I make it a point not to compare different productions of the play and their various interpretative solutions, but I will concede that the depiction of the scene in this particular iteration could come off as a little over the top for some audiences. It’s always a balancing act.

I actually encountered Rheticus very early in my research, and it was in fact his relationship with Copernicus that first suggested to me the use of heliocentrism as a central issue in the play. But, as you note, Luther’s attitude to the theory was not quite so accepting.

But enough about me. I’ve taken the liberty of enclosing a copy of the play for your perusal. Should you have any other questions/comments, I would be very interested to hear them.

Again, Gene, thank you for taking the time to see the show and for your generous evaluation of the experience.


I’ll post my reply next time.

Old English treasure horde

Do you remember in Beowulf about the dragon’s gold-horde, and how after Beowulf died killing the dragon his people rejected the treasure, burying it under a burrow? Well, a bloke with a metal detector may have found it.

The treasure has over 1500 pieces–gold, silver, weapons, ornaments, all rudely-wrought– dating from the 600’s or 700’s, which would be when Beowulf was written–soon after the Angles and the Saxons converted to Christianity. Historians and archeologists are blown away with the find, which vastly multiplies the artifacts that have survived from that era.

Beware, I say. According to all the old tales, such a treasure–one that has been buried and thus gotten rid of rather than kept–comes with a curse. And recall that just carrying away a cup was enough to wake up a dragon.

What's the appeal of bad writing?

Good discussion yesterday of Dan Brown’s deadly prose. But this raises another question. Even though this writing is demonstrably, laughably, absurdly BAD, it will sell gazillions of copies. Probably more than the very good writing of our own Lars Walker, with his new novel West Oversea:. Why is that? How can so many people like what is bad and be indifferent to what is good? This is true also of popular music, television shows, and movies. Not that high quality work isn’t sometimes very popular, but it doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for success. Can anyone explain?

Recognizing bad writing

Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code who thinks Christianity is a vast conspiracy and who confounds fiction with history, has just published another book, The Lost Symbol. This one, from what I gather, is about the Masons, Washington, D.C., and, of course, the sinister Catholic church. Critics are lampooning the thing, but that won’t keep millions of readers from buying it and believing it. This article in a British newspaper catalogues a number of Mr. Brown’s literary faults, going so far as to propose his 20 worst sentences. Before you click the link, let’s test our own literary acumen. What is bad about this particular passage?

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. [em>The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4]