Friday, August 27, 2010

The Fantastic Pocket Watch

"...Suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her...There was nothing so very remarkable in that...but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waist-coat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waist-coat pocket or a watch to take out of it..."

Pocket watches have been around, surprisingly, almost as long as printing itself; it is not surprising, then, that they keep popping up in works of fiction, and perhaps especially fantasy fiction. Read or view a work of Fantasy (and I include under that unfortunate rubric Horror and Science Fiction as well as works dealing with Magic) and sooner or later characters of a certain port or gravitas will haul out a chronometer to consult. I would like to consider several examples and and explore the uses to which the fantastic pocket watch has been put.

A pocket watch (like any clock) can be, of course, a symbol of the tyranny of time. In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels the Lilliputians observe something of this when they report to their Emperor on the contents of the shipwrecked surgeon's pockets:

"We directed him to draw out whatever was at the end of that chain; which appeared to be a globe, half silver, and half of some transparent metal...He put this engine to our ears, which made an incessant noise, like that of a water-mill; and we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us...that he seldom did any thing without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said, it pointed out the time for every action of his life."

If any creature can be held to symbolize the worried fussiness of a slave to his watch, it might be the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It is his pocket watch that heralds the start of Alice's strange adventures and hurries him along to an unpleasant appointment which, if missed, might have fatal consequences. In direct contrast is the watch of the irresponsibly Mad Hatter, which only tells the day of the month (and that incorrectly) and is completely useless since the Hatter has quarreled with Time and got stuck in a perpetual afternoon tea.

It is a small step for the imagination to go from a watch that tells you what time it is to a watch that tells Time what time it is. Lewis Carroll takes that step in Sylvie and Bruno:

"The Professor drew from his pocket a square gold watch, with six or eight hands, and held it out for my inspection. ' an Outlandish Watch...which has the peculiar property that, instead of its going with the time, the time goes with it....It goes, of course, at the usual rate. Only the time has to go with it. Hence, if I move the hands, I change the time. To move them forwards, in advance of the true time, is impossible: but I can move them as much as a month backwards--that is the limit. And then you have the events all over again--with any alterations experience may suggest."

The narrator whom the Professor is addressing borrows the watch and has the usual unsatisfactory adventures with time. Besides being the great-grandfather of dozens of Twilight Zonesque stories, the Outlandish Watch is obviously an ancestor of the Man in the Moon's watch in James P. Blaylock's The Elfin Ship, stolen by Theophile Escargot and coveted by the evil dwarf Selznak:

"This watch freezes everything. Just stops things dead. Lets a chap do what he will, if he has that watch. I had it once and it was worth a few larks, I can tell you...Then one day I ran into Miles the Magician...He said that the watch tells time...He says that any other watch its you that tells time by it. With this, it's the watch that tells the don't think they had time before they had a watch to tell it, do you? Well, that was the watch."

A pocket watch is also an eminent symbol for the Age of Reason, going all the way back to the Deist fable of the watch found on the beach implying a watchmaker. Scientists, explorers, and train conductors: anyone concerned with thinking, observation, and precision timing had to have an efficient chronometer to regulate a chaotic world. At the dark end of this spectrum is Captain Vidal's watch in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, the metal gears and wheels of which seem to represent his brutally materialistic view of the world. But what better image to open T. H. White's novel The Elephant and the Kangaroo than 'Mr. White' tucking his watch away before the foolish, fantastic adventure begins:

"Mr. White had been constructing a secret door in the board floor, where he could hide his gold watch...The watch, for which he had made this arrangement, had seven separate dials on its face. It could tell the name of the month, the date, the day of the week, the phase of the moon, the time, and the second. It was also a stop watch for timing races, and a repeater, for telling the hours, quarters, and minutes in the dark. There were so many dials, in fact, that it was difficult to tell the time by it, and, as it was a full hunter which needed to be opened by pressing a spring before it could be consulted at all, the best place for it was under the floor. Besides, it was valuable."

This of course brings up the idea of the watch as treasure or wealth. In the beginning, a watch could be valuable simply because it was a rare machine; these became status symbols, encased in gold or silver and occasionally jeweled. They have always been the prey of thieves, from pickpockets to highwaymen. Charles Dickens in his fabulous The Pickwick Papers has Sam Weller tell the story of the man so fat no thief can pull his watch from his tight waistcoat. In John Masefield's The Midnight Folk young Kay Harker, seeking a lost treasure that will clear his great-grandfather's name, comes across a lesser discovery in his search:

"Inside...was something of the sort that he had seen in the clockmaker's shop, an old gold watch fatter than the governess's table clock. It was very big; it had a dial for the seconds as well as the hours; there was an engraved inscription on the back...'I know what it is, then,' Kay said. 'Of course, this is [the highwayman] Benjamin's treasure. This is the repeater watch that he took from Sir Hassle Gassle, "that Sir Hassle mourned to his dying day," as Ellen said. I'll take it at once to the present Sir Hassle.' "

Of course the value of a watch doesn't reside merely in its materials. A watch may carry a picture or be inscribed (like Sir Hassle's) when presented as a gift or memento by family, friends, or colleagues. It is a tradition to be given a gold watch upon retirement, a symbol that you are now master of your own time. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, the watch may be only "goldish." In Men At Arms, Carrot writes (with characteristic spelling and punctuation) to his parents about Captain Vimes' retirement:

"We are clubbing together to get him a surprise present, I thought one of those new Watches that don't need demons to make them go and we could inscribe on the back something like 'A Watch from, your Old Freinds in the Watch', this is a pune or Play on Words."

This watch becomes a reminder for Vime of his duty and his friends, and keeps him from making a terrible mistake.

Pocket watches are also presented to the young, as symbols of new duties and responsibilities as they grow older. In J. K. Rowlings' book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows we learn a tradition in the Wizarding World:

"Harry sat down, took the square parcel she had indicated, and unwrapped it. Inside was a watch very like the one Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had given Ron for his seventeenth; it was gold, with stars circling the face instead of hands...'It's traditional to give a wizard a watch when he comes of age,' said Mrs. Weasley...'I'm afraid that one isn't new like Ron's, it was actually my brother Fabian's and he wasn't terribly careful of his possession, it's a bit dented on the back, but--'...The rest of her speech was lost; Harry had got up and hugged her."

Wizards of all kinds seem to love watches. Elsewhere in the Harry Potter books it is mentioned that Dumbledore has a fancy timepiece with ten hands. The state alchemists in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist all carry a watch as a badge of office: officially they are merely symbolic, but legend has it that they enhance alchemical powers. In Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone Merlyn anachronistically consults a watch, and Roger Bacon in John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost has

"...a turnip-shaped gold watch on a long twisted chain. The large ticking bulb was covered with glassy warts, crystal-domed dials that told lunar eclipse dates, the rate of rainfall on the third planet out from Alpha Centauri A, and, incidentally, the time."

Pocket watches were the most popular personal timekeepers for centuries. They began to lose ground to wristwatches after World War One, when it was discovered in the trenches that the easy access on the wrist was more efficient than hauling a watch out of the pocket. Nowadays pocket watches persist as a reminder of a more leisured, elegant time; lately they've had a bit of a comeback because of the steam-punk movement, with its emphasis on Victorian and Edwardian technology. But no matter how its use waxes and wanes in the real world, the pocket watch remains a perennial favorite and a lasting symbol in the realms of imagination.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chesterton on Toys And Playing

"There is only one reason why all grown-up people do not play with toys: and it is a fair reason. The reason is that playing with toys takes so very much more time and trouble than anything else. Playing, as children mean playing, is the most serious thing in the world. And as soon as we have small duties or small sorrows we have to abandon to some extent so enormous and ambitious a plan of life. We have enough strength for politics and commerce and art and philosophy: we do not have enough strength for play. This is the truth which everyone will recognize who, as a child, has ever played with anything at all; anyone who has played with bricks, anyone who has played with dolls, anyone who has played with tin soldiers. My journalistic work, which earns money, is not pursued with such awful persistency as that work which earned nothing."

"Broadly then, what keeps adults from joining in children's games is, generally speaking, not that they have no pleasure in them; it is simply that they have no leisure for them. It is that they cannot afford the expenditure of toil and time and consideration of so grand and grave a scheme. I have been myself attempting for some time past to complete a play in a small toy theatre ...though I have worked much harder at the toy theatre than I ever worked on any tale or article, I cannot finish it; the work seems too heavy for me. I have to break off and betake myself to lighter employments; such as [writing] the biographies of great men."

"All this gives me a feeling touching the real meaning of immortality. In this world we cannot have pure pleasure. This is partly because pure pleasure would be dangerous to us and to our neighbors. But it is partly because pure pleasure is a great deal too much trouble. If I am ever in any other and better world, I hope that I shall have enough time to play with nothing but toy theatres; and I hope that I shall have enough divine and superhuman energy to act at least one play in them without a hitch."

--from "The Toy Theatre," in Tremendous Trifles (1909), by G. K. Chesterton.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

The "Dog King"

"Eystein, the King of the Uplanders, who was by some called the Mighty, but by others the Evil, harried in Trondheim and subdued the Oyna folk and the Sparbyggja folk and set his son over them, but the Tronds slew him. Once more King Eystein raided Trondheim and harried far and wide and again put the land under him. He then asked the Tronds to choose whether they would have as their king a thrall of his called Tore the Hairy or his dog Saur [Icelandic: 'filth, excrement']; they chose the dog, for they believed that they would then rule mostly themselves.

"Then they bewitched the dog with the wit of three men, so that it barked two words but spoke every third word. They had made for it a collar and leash of silver and gold and when it was muddy the king's guardsmen bore it on their shoulders; a high-seat was raised for it and it sat on the howe like a king and dwelled on Inderoy and had its seat on the place called Saurshowe.

"It is said that this was its death; wolves came on its flocks and herds and the guardsmen egged it on to protect its sheep; it went from the howe thither where the wolves were and they straightway tore it asunder."

--from Heimskringla, or The Lives of the Norse Kings, by Snorre Sturlason.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Fine Distinctions

*TRAMP. In the U.S.A. 'there are three types of the genus vagrant: the hobo, the tramp, and the bum. The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders,' Dr. Ben L. Reitman; St. John Tucker, however, says, 'A hobo is a migratory worker. A tramp is a migratory non-worker. A bum is a stationary non-worker.' And Godfrey Owen cites an experienced 'knight of the road' as saying that 'Bums loafs and sits. Tramps loafs and walks. But a hobo moves and works, and he's clean.'

--Eric Partridge, The Wordsworth Dictionary of the Underworld.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

And What Is A Kappa?

Recently my brother and I visited an antique store in New Braunfels and ran across a few strange little ceramic figures, of the sort that were very popular in the '50's. They were in the shape of froggy little creatures with turtle shells and a monkish fringe of hair. I was able to identify them as kappas, mythological Japanese creatures that inhabit ponds, streams, and other bodies of water.

Kappas are about the size of a human child (kappa means "river child"; it's alternate names are kawataro "river boy" and kawako "river child"). Their bodies are described as monkey- or frog-like, with a turtle's carapace. Their faces have been described as apelike, but often have a turtle's beak or duck's bill. They have scaly skin, webbed hands and feet, and are green or blue in color. What they all have is that fringe of hair, and in the middle of that fringe a bowl or depression filled with water.

The kappa has been described as a sprite or water imp; in the Shinto religion it is considered one of the suijin, or water gods, not unlike the nymphs of Greco-Roman mythology. In Japanese popular use they are Nursery Bogies, like the English Jenny Greenteeth or Peg Powler, warning children away from bodies of water in which they would be in danger of drowning. Kappas are said to be fond of eating little children, but also occasionally adults; the way to placate them is to throw cucumbers with the names of family members etched into them into the water. Cucumbers are the only things kappas like eating more than humans.

The other way to overcome a kappa is to bow deeply before him. A kappa is so traditionally polite he will bow in return; this will spill the water from the top of his head, and without this water he is powerless. In this state he will remain until you fill the bowl again, and then he will be your friend and might even give you help. In this manner, according to old tales, the Japanese first learned the art of bone-setting from the kappa. Besides being learned in medicine, the kappa is said to be fond of engaging humans in contests such as sumo wrestling and shogi ("Japanese chess").

In the old days kappas were more threatening figures, but their image has mellowed in modern times, and they pop up all over the place in popular culture. The turtle-like Koopas in the Mario games are said to be based on kappas; there is a cucumber-stuffed sushi called kappamaki; they have appeared in numerous anime series. As a matter of course Hellboy encounters a kappa among the other traditional Japanes creatures in Hellboy: Sword of Storms. Knowing what a kappa is has helped me understand what was otherwise an inexplicable image in a lot of anime shows.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On A Vulgar Error: Favorite Poems


No. It's an impudent falsehood. Men did not

Invariably think the newer way

Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot

Upon the church? Did anybody say

How modern and how ugly? They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verses fire-hot

With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,

Were these at first a horror? They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food

All set us hankering after yesterday,

Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood

By sharpers, when he finds all drained away

Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude

Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway

All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry

The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

--C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Blankety Blank's Thisity That

I recently had occasion to watch Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. It was an interesting experience. Visually lush, technically proficient, and full of interesting performances, it annoyed the hell out of me by grossly embodying so many of my pet peeves. This essay may only be peripherally about the movie; it's mainly a jumping off spot for my rambling concerns.

First of all, I applaud Tim Burton for putting his name on the product, otherwise incautious people might mistake it for Lewis Carroll's actual tale. But even so the title is misleading. Besides mingling elements from both Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass (a habit just about every film adaptation of Alice indulges in), TBAIW is more in the nature of a sequel, with the grown-up Alice returning to her dream-world to work out her real-life problems. A more forthcoming title (Alice In Underland has been suggested) might have been better, but Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland is a lot more honest than, say, Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was all kind of wrong.

That being said, why is Burton playing with this particular cast of characters, with these images? With their actions and personalities so severely different from the originals (think of the buzzwords for this type of "re-imagining": "darker", "more adult"), why must he use them rather than create his own characters to tell his story? As it is, Burton's tale seems to exist as something as a parasite on Carroll's original tale, sucking "name-brand" recognizability and even affection off of Alice. Somewhat more original re-workings are possible: Woody Allen's Alice leaps to mind, where the old story lies under Allen's movie like a skeleton, unseen but providing form and structure.

And to what end does Burton do this? To have a galumphing adventure tale with the moral (that would have been timely in the 1860's, when Alice was first published) that Girls Are People Too And Should Follow Their Dreams No Matter What Society Thinks. Burton's Alice triumphs by using the Vorpal Sword to cut off the Jabberwocky's head (they call it a Jabberwocky, not a Jabberwock, as it is in the book); Carroll's does it by being gentle, kind, and polite. These virtues are not so popular with modern audiences.

All of Western literature can be seen as a long, long conversation. Homer produces The Odyssey, and Virgil answers with The Aeneid, and Dante chimes in with The Divine Comedy. There are influences, and inspirations, and complete quarrels with various viewpoints. It has always been the authors' way to ring the changes on all the myths and motifs. But we have been plagued recently with a spate of work that verges on plagiarism, parody, and sometimes downright theft. All art, all really good art, challenges everyone. It challenges creative people to produce a creative answer to it. Some people merely draw moustaches on it. And Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland (while being generally enjoyable) comes dangerously close to a moustache.