Archive for February, 2013

Now, a great many fellows think that having a rich uncle is a pretty soft snap: but, according to Corky, such is not the case. Corky’s uncle was a robust sort of cove, who looked like living for ever. He was fifty-one, and it seemed as if he might go to par. It was not this, however, that distressed poor old Corky, for he was not bigoted and had no objection to the man going on living. What Corky kicked at was the way the above Worple used to harry him.

Corky’s uncle, you see, didn’t want him to be an artist. He didn’t think he had any talent in that direction. He was always urging him to chuck Art and go into the jute business and start at the bottom and work his way up. Jute had apparently become a sort of obsession with him. He seemed to attach almost a spiritual importance to it. And what Corky said was that, while he didn’t know what they did at the bottom of the jute business, instinct told him that it was something too beastly for words. Corky, moreover, believed in his future as an artist. Some day, he said, he was going to make a hit. Meanwhile, by using the utmost tact and persuasiveness, he was inducing his uncle to cough up very grudgingly a small quarterly allowance.

He wouldn’t have got this if his uncle hadn’t had a hobby. Mr. Worple was peculiar in this respect. As a rule, from what I’ve observed, the American captain of industry doesn’t do anything out of business hours. When he has put the cat out and locked up the office for the night, he just relapses into a state of coma from which he emerges only to start being a captain of industry again. But Mr. Worple in his spare time was what is known as an ornithologist. He had written a book called American Birds, and was writing another, to be called More American Birds. When he had finished that, the presumption was that he would begin a third, and keep on till the supply of American birds gave out. Corky used to go to him about once every three months and let him talk about American birds. Apparently you could do what you liked with old Worple if you gave him his head first on his pet subject, so these little chats used to make Corky’s allowance all right for the time being. But it was pretty rotten for the poor chap. There was the frightful suspense, you see, and, apart from that, birds, except when broiled and in the society of a cold bottle, bored him stiff.

P. G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Jeeves, in My Man Jeeves (1919).


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February 14, 2013

Dear Mr. Mitchel:

In asking me to steal Valentine’s Day, you have set before an old burglar one heck of a temptation.  Alas, I regret to tell you that, fun as it might be – or better say, precisely because I know I would find it so much fun, fun of a kind I long ago forswore – I have to decline your offer.

Indeed your proposal isn’t novel.  The thought of stealing Valentine’s Day occurred to me many years ago.

Valentine’s Day that year fell on Fat Tuesday.  That thrilled me.  For it meant, not only that I could get in a glut of larceny immediately before Lent, but that I could have my hard-stolen Valentine’s loot shipped overnight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  I meditated with a profoundly wicked pleasure upon the revels that would surely greet the unexpected arrival of a large shipment from the likes of me, with a note that read:

Happy Valentine’s Day,


P.S. I’ve included the food for kicks, but if I were you I shouldn’t eat it.  For I have liberally seasoned it with Arsenic sauce.

For days I sat plotting the glorious burglary, down to the smallest detail.  My poor dog Max, who with his well-developed canine empathy had sensed that something was amiss with his master, received confirmation that my heart had indeed been reverting to its former size the day the UPS man delivered a Cupid outfit, three sizes too small for me.  With horror, he realized the outfit was for him, and that I was dragging him back into the holiday heist business.

But the plans that had ripened so gloriously in the days preceding Valentine’s Day were to wither before they could come to pass.  On the Saturday before the great heist, a local theatre happened to put on a performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner.  I politely accepted an invitation to attend — with no clue as to what I was letting myself in for.

It happened in the play’s first scene, when Mr. Whiteside told a story about an Elias P. Crockfield.  Having just been released from prison, Crockfield wandered into a church one St Valentine’s Eve, and, with larceny on the brain, proceeded toward the box of alms for the poor. But just as he laid his hands on the coins in the alms box, he was interrupted by a little girl of five, asking “please, Mr. Man, won’t you be my Valentine?”

In that moment, I stood convicted in the shoes of Elias P. Crockfield.  I pictured Cindy Lou Who as the five-year-old girl, holding aloft a Valentine and asking me, “Mr. Grinch, will you be my Valentine?”  And thus the great Valentine’s Day heist died.

That year I forswore grudge-nursing and larcenous thoughts for Lent.  I gave away all my crime novels (still miss the anthology Wodehouse on Crime).  I’m happy to say that, God being my help, I’ve been able to stay on the path I set out on that February.  To be sure, it hasn’t always been easy.  On occasion, I have found myself driving past toy stores that weren’t on the way home.  One year, the urge to scratch the old itch got so bad I enrolled in the local Kleptomaniacs Anonymous chapter.  The KA leader, and some of the chapter’s members, were less than amused by my attendance; other members were quite diverted, and one, mistaking my face for a mask, patiently tried to pull it off (“you’re gonna be in some kind of pain when you finally get this thing off!” he said).

In short, while I found your request that I steal Valentine’s Day quite flattering, and acknowledge that your arguments are not wholly without merit, I have no desire to take upon myself again the yoke of larceny.

By the time you receive this, the annual flood of pink and red will have subsided.  I do hope you weren’t too disappointed that Valentine’s Day went off as scheduled.  I hope that just maybe, you did something fun.  Or, at least, that you reflected gratefully upon the fact that the day comes but once each year.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and best wishes always,

Yours &c.


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Lenten quiet isn’t about mere negation, but about changing conversations. In the wilderness the devil appealed to Jesus regarding ease, power and vainglory, even quoting the Psalms to make that last appeal. That is our usual conversation, against which Scripture itself is no talisman. But in his fast Jesus was conversing with his Father through Scripture — indeed the very book of Scripture given to Moses just before Joshua and the Israelites left the wilderness and took possession of the promised land.

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Lent is neither therapeutic nor pietistic. It is political. God became King in Christ, the strong Shepherd and deliverer of His people, by means of fasting, temptation, agony and passion, and by way of the wilderness and Cross. We do not share in the Father’s Kingdom — which we daily ask Him to establish on earth as in heaven — except by sharing in His means for establishing the Kingdom.

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turin lego

Túrin Turambar

One of the delightful things about J. R. R. Tolkien is that he remains ever full of surprises, even for those who have been reading him for decades.  For example, once when perusing his Letters, I came across a passage where Tolkien called his description of Cerin Amroth (Book II, ch. 4) the heart of The Lord of the Rings.[1]  What casual reader – nay, what attentive reader – would have guessed?

Now I mention this at the top of this essay on The Children of Húrin because, several months prior to reading Tolkien on the importance of Cerin Amroth, I was likewise gobsmacked by another quote from his Letters:

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala.  It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion), though as ‘The Children of Hurin’ it is entirely changed except in the tragic ending.[2]

In other words, though Tolkien finished The Fall of Gondolin before it, and the tale of Beren and Lúthien later supplanted it as the heart of Tolkien’s account of the First Age of Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin was the seed of Tolkien’s entire legendarium.

I.  They’re writing songs of eucatastrophe – but not for me

The three great stories within The Silmarillion The Fall of Gondolin, The Lay of Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin – have one significant thing in common: the heroes are Men, caught up in the Elves’ hopeless war against Morgoth.  As such, death and the doom of Men loom large over all three stories.  But with this difference: Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin each have a eucatastrophic[3] twist absent in The Children of Húrin.  Beren, like Lazarus, escapes death, at least for a little while; Tuor the sojourner in Gondolin marries the King’s daughter and afterwards is counted among the Elves, and “his fate is sundered from the fate of Men.”[4]

Not so for the House of Húrin, or for Húrin’s son Túrin, hero of The Children of Húrin.  It was this house’s lot to drink to the dregs the fate of Men.  Indeed the measure of their bitterness far exceeded that of any other house of Men, for Morgoth[5] laid upon them a terrible curse.  As Morgoth told Húrin:

The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda [the Earth], and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise.

Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.[6]

II.  “The worth of defeated valour”

Yet, for all its darkness, The Children of Húrin isn’t a fatalistic tale.  For, blazing the trail his wife and children would follow, Húrin steadfastly refuses to yield to Morgoth:

This last then I will say to you, thrall Morgoth . . . and it comes not from the lore of the Eldar, but is put into my heart in this hour. You are not the Lord of Men, and shall not be, though all Arda [Earth] and Menel [Heaven] fall in your dominion.  Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.[7]

Even in Morgoth’s nethermost hell, Húrin sees something like the clear “shaft of light” that Master Samwise would see in Mordor several thousand years later: there was light and high beauty forever beyond the Shadow’s reach.

A grimmer but similarly manful spirit of defiance moves Túrin.  Perhaps Túrin doesn’t see light and high beauty beyond the Shadow’s reach, but he does see history and judgment which the Shadow cannot deface:

The defiance of Húrin Thalion is a great deed; and though Morgoth slay the doer he cannot make the deed not to have been.  Even the Lords of the West will honour it; and is it not written into the history of Arda, which neither Morgoth nor Manwë can unwrite?[8]

The absence of a Fairy-story eucatastrophe makes the desperate stand of Húrin’s household appear in bolder relief.  They are not allowed to skate around, but must walk through, the deepest depths of the doom of Men.  Yet they do so in faithfulness to what good they see, whether beyond the Circles of the World, or in indestructible judgment.  The Children of Húrin is thus to Tolkien’s body of work roughly what the eighty-eighth Psalm is to the Psalter: for the Psalmist, like Húrin’s house, was laid in the lowest pits, and yet “unto thee have I cried, O Lord.” [9]

This was, in fact, the great virtue that Tolkien saw in the Northern literature that so moved him, the theme which gives his work its unique flavor: “Northern courage” and “the creed of unyielding will.”[10]  Morgoth, like the monsters of the North, may win, but the House of Húrin’s defeat is not a refutation of its valour.  Here, perhaps most keenly in Tolkien’s works, “the worth of defeated valour is deeply felt.”[11]

(Originally posted 3/28/12 at Pages Unbound, for Tolkien Reading Week 2012.)

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 221 (Humphrey Carpenter et al. eds., Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).

[2] Id. at 345; cf. Id. at 214-15.

[3] That is, an unlooked-for, happy catastrophic twist.  See Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, in The Tolkien Reader 85-86 (1966).

[4] Tolkien, The Silmarillion 294 (Random House 1999)(1977).

[5] For those only familiar with The Lord of the Rings, Morgoth was the original, and mightiest, Devil of Middle-earth; Sauron was his servant.

[6] Tolkien, The Children of Hurin 64 (2007).

[7] Id. at 65.

[8] Id. at 161.

[9] Psalm 88:13.

[10] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, in Lewis E. Nicholson ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism 70 (1963).

[11] Id. at 73.

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February 2013

Dear Mr. Grinch:

They say that where God closes a door, He opens a window.  And, your commendable repentance for attempting to steal Christmas notwithstanding, I think it’d be a shame if your burglarious prowess, your immense imagination for devising wickedly larcenous plans (how many villains have earned unfavorable comparisons to seasick crocodiles?), should come to naught.  Your talents could be applied in a more worthy cause; and I hereby submit such a cause for your consideration.

You should steal Valentine’s Day.

In the stealing of Christmas you encounter two distinct problems.  The thoroughly profaned, secularized, sentimentalized, commercialized, and truncated version, which millions observe today, is hardly worth stealing.  The original version – the high holy Feast, the celebration of eternal wonder, joy, and love – cannot be stolen.  You know that from hard experience, of course, but you’re not alone.  Not even the dragon in the twelfth chapter of St John’s Revelation could steal Christmas.  So to sum up: Larceny of profaned Christmas is unprofitable; and burglary of the real thing, impossible.

In stealing Valentine’s Day you’d encounter no such problems.  And just think about the public service you’d be doing by stealing Valentine’s Day.

Consider, for instance, the aesthetic atrocities for which Valentine’s Day bears responsibility.  No one possessed of sense and taste could approve of the proliferation of cheesy heart-shaped objects, which in February outpaces even the multiplication of cockroaches.  And what sensible person can tolerate with equanimity the slapdash application of various shades of rose, carnation, crimson, scarlet, ruby, cherry, and vermilion to any and every thing under the sun? G. K. Chesterton once said that painting the town red is a delightful thing – until you have done it.  Then the inhabitants of the red-hot hell of the red town will long, in vain, to see but once again a red rose in a green garden.  Why is it that every February, certain compulsives feel the need to prove, one more time, that what Chesterton said of a red town is at least as true, and perhaps more true, of a pink-and-red town?  By stealing Valentine’s Day, you could spare all our eyes at least one of the annual triumphs of kitsch over beauty.

More significantly, stealing Valentine’s Day would promote social harmony and justice.  It’s no secret that our nation presently suffers from profound divisions.  What with the Occupy Movement, the Tea Party, and the polarizing of our news sources, do we really need one more thing in which some revel, but at which others weep or gnash their teeth?  And lest you say “that’s life; you have to learn to deal maturely with disagreements and disappointments” (a reasonable rejoinder), do not think for a moment that I’m playing some variation on the politics of division and envy.  I’m talking about the alleviation of innocent, unnecessary suffering.  Consider the needless pains of exclusion that Valentine’s Day inflicts upon, say, the poor, innocent children who stay up all night, thoughtfully and generously composing Valentines to all twenty of their classmates, only to receive, say, three Valentines in return.  Or upon the single women who, through no fault of their own, sit at home dateless, flowerless, and possessed only of such chocolate as they purchased with their own hard-earned money.

And, unlike Christmas, on Valentine’s Day no one bothers even to pretend to spread the wealth.  At Christmastide the most crassly materialistic man might donate a few toys to his office’s toys-for-third-world-children toy drive, or some spare change to the Salvation Army, or a box of canned goods to the local homeless shelter.  Good luck finding any such general spirit of peace on earth and good will towards men on Valentine’s Day.  In its current incarnation, at least, it is an unrepentantly insular, provincial holiday.

Consider, Mr. Gringrinch heart sizesch, and act.  Act as only you can.

In appealing to your aesthetic and moral sensibilities, I have, thus far, assumed that your heart has kept the dimensions it acquired on that famous Christmas Day in Whoville.  But it’s possible that your heart has since reverted to its former size: two sizes too small.  If so, let me play Mephistopheles with you for a few moments.

First, if you stole Valentine’s Day, you would win the admiration of every man in America.  Oh, sure, the sensible ones wouldn’t care enough to hold celebrations or anything. And there would be some (the boyfriends of those described under item Third, below) who’d feign indignation at your grand larceny.  But you could rest assured that even these would secretly, in the depths of their repressed manhood, want to give you a (well-earned) high five.

Second, by alleviating the annoyance of a not insignificant number of women, particularly single women, you would by your larceny of Valentine’s Day quickly rise up the ranks of eligible bachelors.  Granted, your being green might slow your rise up the Hit Parade of Love a bit, but one heroic deed can go a long way toward overcoming an olivine complexion.  Just ask Princess Fiona.

Third – as perhaps I should have mentioned first – successfully burgling Valentine’s Day would certainly anger plenty of women.  You know, the ones who have boyfriends but no brains.  These would be up in arms.  And what fun is committing a crime if it doesn’t make you infamous at least to some notable demographic?

I have set forth only a very few inducements to revive your former larcenous intentions, and to transfer such intentions to Valentine’s Day.  Other inducements may well occur to you.  As to the manner in which you accomplish the great Valentine’s Day heist, I entrust all to your ingenuity and sound discretion.  Let your imagination run wild.  The only specific request I would make is that you somehow employ Max your dog in the business, and dress him in some outfit appropriate for the occasion – as Cupid, for example.

Rest assured that I am available to provide any assistance you may require in the great plot to steal Valentine’s Day.  Indeed my only regret in sending this letter is that by soliciting you to steal Valentine’s Day, and by offering my assistance, and inviting you to enter into a criminal conspiracy, I am disqualifying myself from serving as defense counsel if ever you are tried for this great crime.

I am, always,

Sincerely yours,


(Originally posted 2/11/2012 at While We’re Paused. Re-posted here, in advance of Valentine’s Day 2013, in the hope that the Grinch may do what he declined to do last February.)

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