Thursday, May 17, 2007

Summer Reading: Son of a Witch, and what is Romanticism?

Gregory Maguire's Son of a Witch
If you check my profile, you'll see that Maguire's Wicked is listed as one of my favorite books, right there among Hamlet and Crime and Punishment.

As you might imagine, I looked to Son of a Witch, Wicked's sequel, with high hopes. For the most part, these high hopes were disappointed. Why?

The protagonist is rather dull; there's nothing terribly interesting about Liir at all. As I neared the end of the novel, I began to see that Liir's lack of personality throughout may have been intentional, a critical element of the themes of maturation and growth into individuality. However, it remains that he is dull.

The middle portion of the book, "The Service," is very, very boring. It was during this section I considered giving the book up.

But I could live with that. The sad thing is, what worked in Wicked just didn't work in Son of a Witch (or wasn't attempted). The ambiguities are there, but whereas Wicked's mysteries feel like deep, soul-wrenching truths, Son of a Witch's mysteries feel like forced ambiguity. The lack of action through large portions that helps give Wicked its strength was Son of a Witch's weakness.

Still, it has its good points. It is frequently surprising, the last long section of the book is very good, and there seems to be a parallel in the Apostle Emperor to the way Christianity is fused with American imperialism. But if Wicked is an A, Son of a Witch is a C: enjoyable in parts, but often dull, some good writing and interesting theme, but without the stirring depths.

The typical narrative of literary history has British Romanticism beginning with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Of course, as in all intellectual history, there can be an arbitrary nature to how we define epochs of thinking. I've heard critics say that the threads of Romanticism appear in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which is true. I can also see its threads further back, in a poem like Sir Edward Dyer's "My Mind to Me a Kingdom is" (which seems to have deliberate correlation to Shakespeare's "I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space). But of course, given that the Romantics adored Milton and often fused the spirit Milton's poetry into their own poetry, Romanticism can go further back.

Defining literary eras has a certain usefulness; the generalization helps us to make sense of literary history in a broad sense. But of course, we have to remember that we are partly CREATING these eras; it's not that they exist in and of themselves, but we examine the work produced in an era and decide what is significant, what should be read now, what had influence. There were non-Romantic poets writing in early 19th century England, I'm sure--it's just that we haven't deemed them worth the study in a survey of English poetry. As with history, we create it--we pick and choose what is worth defining an era by.

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