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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I first read this book in 1993 during my first ever trip to Hawaii. It’s a long book and I didn’t finish it during the one-week trip, but brought it home with me and worked through it. I had good memories of the epic stories.

So this year, on another trip to Hawaii, I decided to read the book a second time.

I enjoyed the introductory chapter of the formation of the Hawaiian Islands millions of years ago. The book brings to life how the islands were formed and how its flora and fauna became established. That chapter of the book is priceless and I still think about it every time I visit the Islands.

The next section describes in detail the lives of the islanders in Bora Bora and the surrounding islands in the South Pacific thousands of years ago. We learn what their lives were like, driven by superstition, and brutal beyond belief, particularly in their paradise-like environment. We find out what might have motivated those early islanders to make a trip by canoe, thousands of miles to the north, to eventually find and settle Hawaii.

I also enjoyed the journey of the missionaries from England in the early part of the nineteenth century, by brig, round Cape Horn and eventually to Hawaii. The book describes in excruciating detail the difficulties seamen encountered trying to round Cape Horn. The only other book that comes close to that I have read is Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana – which I very highly recommend – particularly if you are a Southern Californian. You’ll never see the California coast the same way again after reading Dana.

When the missionaries finally arrived in Hawaii, at Lahaina in Maui, they immediately set to work destroying the culture and spiritual world of the natives, forcing the exploitative practices of the Christian religion upon the people. Descriptions of their methods and practices further foster my dislike of religions in general.

Abner Hale is the lead missionary on Maui, and he is a hapless, rigid puritan with a chip on his shoulder. Nobody likes him, but his relentless drive, and his industrious nature, get things done and moving forward. He hounds the natives and emotionally brutalizes them.

And then I got bored with the book. The religious lecturing goes on for dozens and dozens of pages, and at 25% I finally gave up. I remember it’s an epic work, I remember enjoying the book over 25 years ago, but those memories are not strong enough for me to endure another 75%. There are other things to read.

Not star-rated because I didn’t finish reading the book.

 

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Twenty-one-year-old Mack McAsh and his twin sister are trapped working in the coal mines in Scotland in 1766. Coal miners work under the harshest possible conditions. The men go to work early in the morning and labor in the mines, picking the coal from assigned spots deep underground. The women and children then haul the coal on their backs up rickety staircases in the shafts. All day long. Every day except Sunday. Miners also have no way out. Often, through complex laws, they become lifelong slaves of the mine owners.

Lizzie Hallim is noble-born and therefore has a very different kind of life. However, while the miner’s oppression is simple, the fate of a noblewoman out of favor can be complex and just as brutal.

Mack escapes this fate and tries to make it on his own, first by escaping to London, then, through circuitous ways to the New World, a plantation in Virginia.

A Place Called Freedom follows these protagonists on their journey to escape injustice during a time of revolution. They are searching for a better life, a simple life, but above all, a life of freedom.

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Oliver!

Columbia Pictures, 1968, 2 hours

Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart

Directed by Carol Reed

Starring Ron Moody and Oliver Reed

 

Among English novelists of the 19th century, Charles Dickens indisputably ranks as the most astute social satirist of his age.  The appalling living conditions of the lower classes in Victorian England had resulted from the rapid economic transformation of society in the Industrial Age.  The most vulnerable were the poor and, in particular, young orphans whose plight Dickens depicts in several of his writings in realistic and unsanitized detail. The scathing satire flowing from his pen would target the class of powerful industrialists and snobbish élite who were mercilessly exploiting the less fortunate members of society.

Oliver Twist would advance the literary career of Charles Dickens not only as the most popular novelist of his day but also as a relentless critic of his contemporaries.  His appeal to readers across cultures is due to his deft portrayal of memorable characters: Oliver, the pitiable orphan; Fagin, the conniving swindler; Nancy, the kind wench; Bill, the ruthless criminal.   These archetypal players in a Dickensian drama breathe life into a convoluted maze of subplots, leaving readers to wonder how an orphan’s journey through life, starting in despair, may yet conclude in hope.

The novel evolved from serialized monthly installments published in a popular magazine. It finally appeared in book form, after two years, in three volumes! Its length was due to subplots that are usually left out in most film adaptations (except for a recent miniseries). The central storyline is compressed even more in the musical Oliver! and its film version, entertaining audiences with delightful song-and-dance numbers which have become part of the repertoire of  tunes from modern musicals.

The film would garner an Academy Award for Best Picture, and five other awards from a total of eleven nominations.  It is worth noting that the spotlight of this musical drama has always fallen on the British actor, Ron Moody, who would go on to win multiple awards as Best Actor for his flawless portrayal of the cunning Fagin (his signature role in a long acting career, on stage and on screen).  The demanding portrayal of the brutal Bill Sikes, the arch villain of  Dickens’ novel, falls upon the matchless British actor, Oliver Reed.

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The Old Bank Vault

Today I went to the local locksmith shop to get a copy of a key. I saw this sitting in the middle of the shop:

I didn’t have a banana with me for scale, but the white paper on top is a normal sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper. The top of it reached about to the level of my belt.

We are looking at a bank vault from circa 1853. To put it in perspective, this was before Abraham Lincoln was president. The vault is made of solid manganese and weighs over 4,500 pounds. The design of the vault was to direct the shock of a dynamite blast away from the vault, thus ensuring anything inside would be protected. The inside of the vault is only about 12 by 12 inches, about enough room for a basketball.

Those cowboy bank robbers of the west must have had a hard time with a vault that weighed 4,500 pounds and couldn’t be blasted open with dynamite. Try to put that on the back of a horse!

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It’s 1939 in England, and the start of World War II hangs heavy in the air. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) is a wealthy but ailing widow who lives on an estate in Suffolk. In her fields are “mounds” of earth that have been there throughout history. She hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a professional “excavator” who takes on the job of digging into the mounds to see what might be buried beneath.

When Mr. Brown discovers the outline of a buried ship, the local archeological establishment sniffs fame and starts taking over the dig, not wanting to leave the results and the laurels to who they consider an amateur. They eventually dig out a 27-meter long Anglo-Saxon ship and an assortment of buried treasures from the 6th century, a time in history that we normally call the Dark Ages. After this find, the archeologist calls it “Dark Ages no more.”

The Dig deals with family, working and class relationships in English society. It is set in front of the backdrop of the country preparing for war with Germany. Based on the true story of the Sutton Hoo treasures, dramatized by the 2007 novel The Dig by John Preston, the movie gives a romanticized view of rural life in pre-war England, along with all the fog, the rain, and the green countryside we expect to see.

 

 

I noticed in my WordPress reader that there are many other people who reviewed this movie just recently. It’s a 2021 release, and I am sure it’s because we’re all starved for NEW materials after the pandemic dark year. Here are some of the links I found:

The Dig – Review ‹ Just A Little Bit Random ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

The Dig (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Their friendship over burial mounds ‹ Seongyong’s Private Place ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

Film Review: The Dig (2021) ‹ Paris Franz ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

The Dig (2021) Review!! ‹ Welcome to Moviz Ark! ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

THE DIG*** Shallow ‹ Vagabond Shoes ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

The Dig ‹ The Silverback Digest ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

The Dig ‹ THE VIEW FROM THE TURRET ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

Exhuming emotion  ‹ Fremantle Herald Interactive ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

Review: The Dig ‹ A Few Good Reviews ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

Movie Review: The Dig ‹ Howard For Film ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

The Dig ‹ Lofty Music and Film ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

I imagine you have to be quite dedicated to read twelve reviews of the same movie, but I thought it might be an interesting experiment.

 

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Russia Today

Navalny, after surviving an assassination attempt, and recovering in Germany, the Russian government (Putin) portrayed him as a traitor.

Then Navalny did the incredible. Rather than staying safe and protected in the west, he went back to Russia and promptly got arrested.

Now Putin has a problem. No traitor would do that. Only a sincere man would put his life on the line for his country. That’s exactly what Navalny did. The Russian people have had enough. They have now been oppressed by their own government in many forms for more than 100 years.

I have never been to Russia, and I am not likely to ever go there as long as it’s a corrupt oligarchy with a murderer at its head.

But I admire the Russian people, their spirit, their intelligence, and their history. I always wanted to learn some Russian. Perhaps I can make the trip one day when Navalny is its president?

Here is more information about Navalny -> Wikipedia.

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England’s King Henry IV was a tyrannical monarch who was involved in many wars. His oldest son Hal (Timothée Chalamet), the Prince of Wales, wanted nothing to do with his father and had no interest in the crown. The king had made plans for this second son to succeed him. While the king was on his deathbed, the younger son died in battle, and Hal had no choice but to ascend to the crown, becoming King Henry V. Palace politics and intrigues kept trying to entrap him, but he stood his ground. However, due to the machinations of courtiers, he was deceived into invading and attacking France, particularly as he considered himself to be the legitimate heir to the French throne too. The war in France was not easy, but he was victorious, largely due to the advice and experience of his friend and confidant, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Key to the invasion was the famous Battle of Agincourt.

There have been many history books written about the famed Battle of Agincourt. I always like to read historical fiction, as it provides colorful and tangible detail and makes history come alive. One such book was Agincourt – by Bernard Cornwell, which I reviewed here about a year ago. It goes without saying that you’ll learn a lot more about the battle and the historical details by reading the novel, but movies are good at fleshing out some of the imagery, the costumes, the living conditions and the times in general. The movie The King does that superbly. It is loosely based on the Shakespearean “Henriad” plays, but not specifically any one of them.

The Battle of Agincourt is described in Cornwell’s book from the perspective of the common soldiers and the knights, who were basically at the mercy of the young and inexperienced boy-king. In this movie, the entire story is told from the point of view of the king. A very different story indeed.

King Henry V lived from September 16, 1386 until August 31, 1422. He took the throne of England on March 21, 1413 at the age of 26 and ruled for only 9 years until his death at the age of 35. He died in war, but it is not clear exactly how. Some suspect dysentery, others heatstroke, as he had ridden all day in full armor in terrible heat that day. He is celebrated as one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England. When he died, his infant son, only a few months old, became King Henry VI of England.

Just watching the movie, The King, would be entertaining, but learning all the historical background around that time in history makes it all worthwhile. So I definitely recommend The King.

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In the late 1960s, when I was a school boy in Germany, I remember that the evening news, along with what was going on in Vietnam, often covered violence in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants were always murdering each other in violent clashes, shootings and bombings. As a child, I could never understand why Christians would hate each other so much that they’d kill each other, year after year after year.

As a school boy in Bavaria I witnessed almost all my friends and school mates being Catholic. Everyone was Catholic in Bavaria, except a very few. Those who were not Catholic were called “die Evangelischen” which translates to our overall term “Protestant.” In a classroom of 30 to 40 students, there might be one or two Protestants, often none. We knew that, because there was mandatory religion class, where a religion teacher, usually a priest, would teach about religion. We had no choice but participate, except those kids that were Protestant. They were pulled out and went to some other study room, or had their own consolidated Protestant class, except there were so few of them in school that they would not be able to put  enough together to fill a classroom.

Bavarians were generally Catholic, and Protestants were the children of refugees. Refugees in Germany in the sixties always came from the east and were people who were displaced when the Russians closed in on Hitler in World War II. They spoke a very different dialect, so we could tell who they were, and they were usually Protestant.

As a kid, I never gave it much thought.

The book A Column of Fire deals with the subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century in Europe and particularly in England. Queen Mary Stuart was a staunch Catholic, and Protestantism was against the law. Protestants were called heretics, and the inquisition, staffed by sadistic priests, had the power to accuse anyone of heresy, try them in “court” and burn them at the stake, if convicted. Accused heretics were tortured, like stretched until all four limbs were completely dislocated. Under such torture, most every accused person confessed to heresy, which ended the torture, but started the brutal execution, like being burned naked and alive while the public watched and the clergy looked on. Queen Mary, sometimes called “Bloody Mary” ordered hundreds of such executions of Protestants.

Reading about tortures, I also remembered that as a school boy, I once took a tour of the Regensburg Rathaus (the old town hall). One of the most memorable sights there was the Folterkammer (torture chamber).

I was in that torture chamber and was able to inspect the various implements. As a kid it didn’t affect me much, and I never thought about it. As it turned out, between the years 1533 and 1770, suspected sinners were asked to confess, and if they didn’t confess, they were shown the torture instruments, which I suspect made many of them change their minds. But the key point is, “freedom of religion” as we know it today, is a very recent invention, and just a few hundred years ago, in Germany, in England, and all over the world, if you lived in a predominantly Catholic country, the laws were such that if you were not Catholic, or if you worked against the church, you were a blasphemer or a heretic, and the punishment could easily be death, depending on the severity of the crime as determined by the inquisitor.

That does not mean only the Catholics were the barbarians.

When Queen Mary Stuart died, Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and professed herself to be a moderate. She said she didn’t believe that people should be killed for their religion. Yes, the country was Protestant, and Catholicism was outlawed, but at least you weren’t summarily killed for it. However, since the Catholics were obsessed with their right, they felt Elizabeth was illegitimate as queen, and they tried various plots to kill her and give the throne to Mary, Queen of Scots – you guessed it – a Catholic.

The church and politics were completely intertwined, and the pope, his cardinals and bishops had as much power as the nobility and wielded it with a brutal hand.

A Column of Fire plays in the fictional town on Kingsbridge about 200 years after World Without End. It starts in 1558 in Kingsbridge and ends in 1620. It follows the lives of various prominent Kingsbridge residents as they do the bidding of famous historical figures, like Queen Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, King Filipe in Spain, King Henri in France, Sir Francis Drake, and many other historical figures of the time. A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge trilogy, or the “Pillars Trilogy” as I have called it. You can read my other reviews here:

The Evening and the Morning – the prequel

Pillars of the Earth – book one

World Without End – book two

A Column of Fire – book three – this review

This is a historical novel about the Christian religion in its dark days. Reading it I am glad I live today, and I live in a country that prides itself of religious freedom – and I say that somewhat facetiously. Catholics and Protestants in the United States don’t kill each other (anymore), but I am not so sure whether all Jewish people and definitely Muslims in the United States today would agree that we have religious freedom. But if you want to learn first-hand what lack of religious freedom means, you should definitely read A Column of Fire.

I like Follett’s books because they make history come alive. It’s one thing to read in a history book that Martin Luther didn’t like what the Catholics were doing and wanted to reform the church, but the Catholics didn’t approve of that. That’s dry, that’s history lectures in school with no context. It’s another thing to be inside the head of a young woman in Paris who sells copies of the Bible in French or English, which were printed clandestinely, and the penalty for being discovered selling illegal books was death. Yes, the Catholic church banned bibles in languages other than Latin and the penalty for violating that rule was death. The Catholic church has, in all its history, actively worked on keeping the people uneducated, so it could wields its power over them and essentially extract money from them for its own enrichment. I may seem on a rant, and off topic now, against the Catholic church, but not really. A Column of Fire brings the power or the church in the 16th century to life in front of your eyes.

This is a very long book with 919 pages and it takes time to read. But it was time well-spent. I am now going to have to read a biography of Martin Luther, as I am embarrassed to say, I know only very rudimentary facts about him and his life and work. I need to fill in that blank. I have also concluded that I need to find a historical novel that plays during the crusades, another time in history that warrants better understanding, and I suspect I will learn more about atrocities committed by the church.

The third American colony was started in New England by the passengers of the Mayflower in 1620. It was in the context of the political structure in England described in A Column of Fire that these first pilgrims stepped onto the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and now I understand how and why that happened.

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It is the year 997 in England, the end of the Dark Ages. The people live in wooden houses and use primitive tools.

Edgar is an eighteen-year-old youth, the son of a boatbuilder. During a Viking raid, his village is destroyed, his father is killed, and his mother and brothers have to move to a new village and start from scratch, trying to survive.

Ragna is the daughter of a Norman nobleman who falls in love with Wilwulf, the ealdorman (you’ll have to look that up here) of Shiring. She moves to England to marry him, but she has no idea what the customs are in her new world. Quickly her life is all but destroyed.

Aldred is a young monk who wants to turn his monastery into a center of learning and culture. This is in the time when copies of books were written by hand, and when books where hugely expensive and impossible to own.

Wynston is the bishop of Shiring, a cunning, brutal man who will stop at nothing, including fratricide, to get what he wants, more power and more riches.

The lives of these four people are interlinked and connected as we watch them struggle for survival, for love and lust, for power and for enlightenment. But in the end, the story is too simple, the plot predictable, and the characters are one-dimensional and not believable.

I bought this book without bothering to first download the preview to see if I’d like it, based completely on the reputation and caliber of the author. I have read the “Kingsbridge Trilogy” starting with Pillars of the Earth, one of the best historical novel I have ever read. The Evening and the Morning is the fourth book of the Kingsbridge series, written as a prequel to Pillars. It plays about a hundred years before Pillars, when the little hamlet that will once become Kingsbridge consists of just a few hovels in the middle of nowhere.

I have no idea why the title of the book is The Evening and the Morning. Surely, Follett could have spent a little more time thinking of a better title. The book is over 900 pages long and it takes patience to read. I was hoping I’d get more history out of the experience, but I really didn’t. The story is a love story, a tale of utter evil and brutishness, power and abuse, sex (too much of it) and melodrama. Disney could have written the story, and it could have played anywhere and at any time. It just turns out it played in the decade between the years 997 and 1007, during the reign of King Ethelred II.

The Evening and the Morning is a nice attempt at a historical novel that describes life during the Dark Ages, or better, the end of the Dark Ages, but it misses a lot of opportunities. Edgar, one of the protagonists, could have been shown as an old man, jumping forward closer to the 1100 period, where Pillars starts. As it turns out, I learned more about the history of that period in England browsing wikipidia.org for Ethelred, the term “ealdorman,” the Viking raids, and court life during that period than I learned from reading The Evening and the Morning. 

Follett is a great writer, and this book leaves me with the feeling that he just wanted to write something quickly and without much imagination to make some money from his loyal followers. The book really doesn’t have anything to do with the Kingsbridge stories, other than it plays 100 years before John Builder first sets foot into the town of Kingsbridge is search of a job.

That’s when it gets exciting. You will not miss anything if you skip The Evening and the Morning.

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Watching the Republican National Convention these days, speech after speech paints bleak pictures of “Biden’s America,” by calling out riots, looting, rage and mass shootings, and no respect for law enforcement.

This reality we are experiencing is not Biden’s America, it’s Trump’s America.

They tout Trump’s great economy, lowest unemployment ever, a thriving middle class relieved of the tax burden.

This is not what is going on right now. The middle class hasn’t seen its taxes cut. Tens of millions of people are out of work and barely hanging on with – yes – government handouts. This reality is not Biden’s America, it’s Trump’s America.

The people are afraid for their futures and the future of their children. This isn’t freedom. This is calamity. It’s Trump’s America.

They are blasting Biden for wanting to raise $4 trillion in taxes, but the party of fiscal responsibility, fashioned by Paul Ryan ten years ago, just accumulated another $6 trillion in debt in the last 4 years. This is not Biden’s America.

It’s Trump’s America!

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Just a couple of days ago was the 75th anniversary of VE Day in Europe, the day the Nazis surrendered about a week after Hitler killed himself. What most people do not realize is how short the tenure of power of the Nazis actually was. Hitler didn’t come to power until March 1933 and his Third Reich (which he called the 1000-year-empire) lasted only 12 years.

Today, May 11, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of a milestone speech Hitler gave at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich at 7:30pm, titled “Was wir wollen?” (what we want?). Below is a poster proclaiming the event. This was the time when the fledging Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (the Nazi party) recognized Hitler’s oratory and propaganda skills and he started to rise within the party. He proclaimed he fought for the worker class, he called the people Genossen (comrade) and his mantra was to Make Germany Great Again after its humiliation by the allied powers after “the World War” which we now know as World War I.

Germany didn’t know it at the time, but the dark period started that day. The name of Hitler on the poster was still in very small font.

[May 11th, 1920] First NSDAP advertising posters in Munich. Call for the public party rally on May 11, 1920. Speaker: Adolf Hitler from 100yearsago

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Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the movie The Irishman shows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish-American who lives in Philadelphia, tell his life story. The Martin Scorsese movie is three and a half hours long. So make sure you have ample time before sitting down for this one, or split it into two nights.

The story starts when Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, is in a wheelchair in a nursing home, telling the story of how he started out as a truckdriver delivering meat, to becoming a hit man for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and a friend and confidante of Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The Irishman leads us through a few turbulent decades of American history and the mob’s involvement. Particularly the Kennedy Administration, how Kennedy got elected, Bobby Kennedy’s role, and eventually even Nixon are involved in the plot. Most of all, it gives deep insight into the thinking of the mob and the unions, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The acting is superb. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano are at their very best. We have not one superstar actor in this film, but half a dozen of them, all doing an exemplary job.

The Irishman is shocking, exhausting to watch, long and drawn out, but hugely educational, and a history lesson.

I never knew much about Jimmy Hoffa, other than I knew that he was a union figure, and there was a movie about him (Hoffa, 1992, with Jack Nicholson). Now I know a lot more about Hoffa, and I’ll have to watch that movie too.

The Irishman is 209 minutes long, and 209 minutes worth watching.

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At the end of The Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is expelled from the Clan, and she walks away into the unknown wilderness in search of “The Others,” her own people.

Eventually, she finds The Valley of Horses, with a suitable empty cave on a cliff in a protected canyon, a stream with a waterfall above it, and the steppe not far beyond the valley. The glacier, which shapes the local climate an the flora and fauna, is not far away toward the north.

Ayla makes her home there. The rescues a colt and raises it, and later she rescues a baby cave lion, and raises it too. She ends up spending three years alone in the valley with her animals.

Jondalar and Thonolan are two young brothers on a journey down the Danube to the “sea,” which of course is what we know as the Black Sea today. On their odyssey they get to know many different tribes. Eventually, they end up in Ayla’s valley under catastrophic conditions, with Jondalar severely injured.

Ayla nurses Jondalar to heath and eventually the two become a couple.

I read The Clan of the Cave Bear decades ago for the first time, and I remember reading The Valley of Horses, its sequel, also, but I remembered nothing about it. When I recently re-read Clan, I decided to also re-read Valley. They are the first two books of the Earth’s Children series of six books written by Auel. I enjoyed The Valley of Horses to a degree. It does a nice job portraying life in the stone age by the Cro Magnon man, our direct ancestors, and it contrasts that to the lives of the Neanderthals, of “the Clan” as they are called in this series. I have always been interested in pre-history, taking place in southern and eastern Europe during the current Ice Age but before the last glacial period – or about 30,000 years ago.

Jondalar’s home is where France is today, and Ayla’s home is originally in today’s Crimea. The Valley of Horses is about where today’s Kiev is in Ukraine. The Cro Magnon people were on the rise with their advances in hunting techniques, weapons and general social structure. The Neanderthals, who had reigned over Europe and Eastern Europe for more than 100,000 years, virtually with no changes in their lives, were on the decline. There was occasional interbreeding during that period, between the two sub-species of humans, and this overall backdrop sets the stage for The Valley of Horses.

The story is a bit boring at times, particularly when the author repetitively describes things that she has described before. There is also a surprising amount of explicit sex, with detailed, graphic sex scenes going on for pages. I can understand that it’s necessary to include sex to describe the lives of the people, but there is too much of it in this book. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a romance novel, and it should have had a Fabio-like dude with a fur loin cloth holding a blond vixen in a passionate kiss. I don’t know why the author found it necessary to include as much sex as she did. It got repetitive to me, and I found it unnecessary.

I got my fix of pre-history with these two books.

I now marvel about time-scales. This played 30,000 years ago. That’s 10 times as long as our modern timescale, if you think of the time of the ancient Greeks as the start of modern times. No innovations occurred in their lives for tens of thousands of years, thousands of generations. When I compare that to the pace of innovation we are experiencing now, I am awestruck at the length of human history, and how long we endured under very challenging conditions so I could be here today.

I will not read the next four books in the series, but it peeked my interest in anthropology. So today, at the bookstore, I picked up “Who we are and how we got here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past” by David Reich. It’s a science book. It won’t have sex scenes, but it’ll give me that feeling of awe when I face the unlikely history of humanity.

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Nicholas Hook was a common 19-year-old man in England in 1413. He had one gift: He was a superb archer and as a result he ended up in the army of King Henry V invading France. Henry V thought he was the rightful heir to the French throne, in addition to the English, and he thought God was on this side in his quest to claim what was rightfully his.

This story is about the legendary battle of Agincourt, about which many scholars of history have written numerous books. It tells the story of that invasion in vivid detail from the point of view of the common man. We get drawn into the lives of the people, the thinking of the nobility and the clergy at the end of  medieval Europe during the Hundred Years’ War.

Life was rough. Lords had the power of gods and could do anything they wanted. Clergy was revered and utterly corrupt. All evil deeds were somehow done on behest of God and great suffering was inflicted on the people, through taxation, backbreaking labor, and relentless abuse. During war, the boys and men of the losers were killed, and the women raped and enslaved. This was just how life was.

Agincourt is full of terrible, endless violence. Here is an example of a battle scene:

“Stay tight, stay tight!” Sir John bellowed, making sure there was a man to his left and Sir William to his right. You fought shoulder to shoulder to give the enemy no room to pierce the line, and Sir John’s men-at-arms were fighting as he had trained them to fight. They had stepped over the first fallen Frenchmen and the second line of English were lifting enemy visors and sliding knives into the eyes or mouths of the wounded to stop them from striking up from the ground. Frenchmen screamed when they saw the blade coming, they twisted in the mud to escape the quick stabs, they died in spasms, and still more came to be hammered or chopped or crushed. Some Frenchmen, reckoning themselves safe from arrows, had lifted their visors and Sir John slammed the poleax’s spike into a man’s face, twisting it as it pierced the eye socket, dragging it back jellied and bloodied, watching as the man, in frantic dying pain, flailed and impeded more Frenchmen. Sir William Porter was stabbing his lance at men’s faces. One blow was usually enough to unbalance an enemy and Sir William’s other neighbor would finish the job with a hammer blow. Sir William, usually a quiet and studious man, was growling and snarling as he picked his victims. “God’s blood, William,” Sir John shouted, “but this is joy!”

— Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt (p. 402). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

A good third of the book describes such atrocities. Skulls crushed by hammers and axes, a thousand eyes poked out by knives, swords rammed into bowels and twisted up to the lungs and hearts.

It is graphic and realistic, but it was too much for me. At times I’d start skimming over the battle scenes, as I simply didn’t need to know about every stabbed eye socket anymore, and I wanted to move on.

This was my first Cornwell book. It was recommended to me by colleagues as great historical fiction, and I found that it is. There are countless other Cornwell books, probably just as vivid and graphic. It was well written and very educational, but unlike other fans of Cornwell that end up binge-reading all his books, I think I am done and ready for other subjects.

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I read The Clan of the Cave Bear many decades ago and I remembered liking it, being impressed by it, and that the main character’s name was Ayla. But that was all.

When I recently read Pushed Back it reminded me of this book, so I read it again now.

The story plays about 30,000 years ago, the end of the age of the Neanderthals, on the peninsula of Crimea, the same Crimea that was taken over by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The glaciation of the northern hemisphere was at its maximum, reaching down all the way to southern England, covering Scandinavia, and getting to within a few hundred miles of Crimea in what is now Russia.

Ayla is a 5-year-old girl born to Cro-Magnon humans who had just started arriving in Europe at that time. Ayla was away from her tribe playing when a strong earthquake demolished their encampment and everyone perished. The little girl was left alone, naked, in the wilderness. After days of wandering about, just before her imminent death, a migrating troupe of Neanderthals comes along and their medicine woman, Iza, convinces the leader to take the little girl in so she could save her life. And so it comes about that a little girl “born to the Others” is raised in a Neanderthal clan.

The Others look like modern humans, and the Clan people find her ugly. Eventually she is accepted into the Clan and those around come to love and respect her. But it does not come without a price. The Clan’s rules are highly patriarchic and restrictive. The successor to the current leader, Broud, is an ambitious youth, very insecure, and sees Ayla with all her differences as a threat. He develops a deep hatred for her that festers and escalates until the day he takes over.

The book is 468 pages long and delves deeply into the Clan’s society, culture and individual thinking. As a reader, I found myself thinking like many of the main characters, like Brun, the Neanderthal leader, Broud, his eventual successor, Creb, the clan’s magician and spiritual leader, and the many women and children. The author goes into great detail into the lifestyle of the clan, how they live, hunt, eat, celebrate and socialize. Reading this book is an immersion into stone-age life.

Much of the detail, of course, is the author’s conjecture. For instance, she describes the Clan people as speaking mostly using sign language and not voices. She also makes many assumptions about the social structure, and while we are not sure what is fact and fiction, I was fine with it. I didn’t come to read the book to get a historically accurate and factual representation of Neanderthal life, I came to experience what it might have been like, and how it would have felt. In that, the author was very successful.

For a while, as I was reading the book, I became a Neanderthal.

It struck me how much of their life and their culture was guided by “spirits.” Most important decisions, most laws or rules, were based on what the spirits wanted or dictated. Many decisions were made not based on the visible reality of the world, but what they thought the spirits wanted. This caused misery, sometimes death, unspeakable pain and sorrow, and much overall suffering.

One of the conjectures I found hardest to believe was that the Clan people thought that pregnancies were started by totem spirits fighting over the woman’s body. If the outside male spirit won, the woman became pregnant. Sexuality was a casual activity. Any male could beckon any woman or young girl, any time he wanted, and she would simply have to assume the position, so he could “relieve his need.” This was done in open sight all the time. You would think that Neanderthal society, which was active for over 100,000 years without any real progress or change, but was very smart with herbs, medicinal uses of plants, tool making, and the like, would have figured out that it was the relieving of a man’s need into a woman’s womb that might be the cause of the baby getting started in there? Surely they knew!

While I wondered how it was possible that societies could be that much influenced by imaginary powers, imaginary threats, and imaginary disasters, I realized that we have many parallels today.

Millions of people today are still guided by religions and their laws, ceremonies, customs and limitations. In addition, we allow ourselves to suffer from imaginary foes, like mortgages coming due, debts having to be repaid, bad grades in college, titles attained or not attained. All those things are imaginary powers, not unlike the spirits of the Neanderthals, and I found suddenly that my life was not that different and in its own way was driven by the Spirit of the Cave Bear.

 

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