5.22.2009

A Brass Top

In the last year, basically since I started blogging, I have been prone to reading at least two books at the same time. I was never like this before. I didn't notice the phenomenon until I read a post by LB, in which she noted that her husband always did it, but it was a new thing for her. She said, and I agree completely:
Rather than confusing me, as I thought it most definitely would, the multiple book strategy gives me two distinct advantages to my previously one-book-to-finish paradigm: 1) I can prioritize my reading time, and 2) I always have something I want to read on hand.
With that, I've been reading a history book about the framers of the Constitution, but at the same time I've started up the Sparrowhawk series again. I already finished Book One: Jack Frake, and just started on Book Two: Hugh Kenrick.

Over the past year, I have struck up a friendship with Ed Cline, the author of these amazing works, and if there is one value I have gained from starting this blog, this friendship is it. It's an interesting experience to read a work of literature written by someone you know. My favorite authors have traditionally been distant, and inaccessible either by death or by immense fame. I would have thought that reading a book by someone I know would be strange, in that I wouldn't be able to take it seriously.

Perhaps it's all in the quality of the art, but I don't think it will matter how many times I read Sparrowhawk. I'm immediately transported to the world just a few decades before the Revolution as soon as I crack open one of the volumes.

Book Two: Hugh Kenrick tells of the beginning of one of the two heroes of the series, a young noble who rises above the fawning pettiness and toxic arrogance of class so typical of aristocracy, and eventually becomes one worthy of title of Independent Man. It opens with Hugh, six years old, delighting in the workings of an exquisite brass top given him by his father, and how he fights an older noble's son who tries to take it from him by "right." The book follows as he grows and matures.  At the age of nine, Hugh prepares to meet the son of the king, the Duke of Cumberland, hero of many battles, as he comes to tour the Kenrick's estate.

Hugh and everyone else is schooled in the ways of expected niceties and protocol, and Hugh looks forward to meeting someone worthy of the title "hero." But he sees the vacant eyes, easy cruelty, and fatness of the Duke as he walks up the steps, and in his disgust and disappointment, forgets to bow. His evil uncle, the Earl of Danvers, gives him an ultimatim: apologize to "restore the family honor" or be whipped until bloodied and exiled for a year. 9-year-old Hugh chooses to be whipped and exiled rather than betray his principles.

Months later, when the family has individual portraits commissioned, the painter is taken aback by a quality in Hugh he can't define and that makes him uncomfortable. Hugh chooses a specific setting with a particular composition for the portrait, and Westcott, the artist, asks of the significance of the brass top Hugh wants included:

"Why do you wish to include the top, milord?" He paused. "I ask this so that I may better understand its place in the portrait."

"Because, when it is set in motion, it stands by its own rules. Then it is not an inert thing, like a tree or a rock."

Westcott had smiled. "Ah! But your hand must set it in motion, milord. So it cannot be as independent as you say."

"It is the symbol of a soul, Mr. Westcott. Or of a mind. Every man has one, and it is like a top, fashioned by himself. He must keep it upright, by his own hand. He must exert the effort. Otherwise it will topple, and lay inert and useless within himself, not a living thing at all. Or another hand may set it in motion, and then he will have no say in its motion or course." [bold added]

May we all mind our tops, keeping them upright, by our own hand.

2 comments:

Richard said...

You know that's very interesting. I had a similar thought of my own several years ago in regards to a modern day child's toy. Tetris! I think Tetris roughly emulates the process of integration.

Data is continually forthcoming (the blocks). It is then up to the individual to use their mind to logically put the data together in ways that make sense. When the pieces fit successfully your awarded with a knowledgeable whole. Otherwise you wind up with a cluttered mess. Perhaps then there's good reason for critics to consider Tetris the greatest game of all time. (Honestly however I've never been a big Tetris fan myself)

C. August said...

Thanks for the comment. I hadn't thought of toys in general, but was focusing on the symbolic nature of the top to Hugh Kenrick. What your comment about Tetris brought to mind is the nature of free play for children and how important it is that they be able to explore the world this way.