Some Fantastic

The top ten earning films of the 2010’s consisted of four Marvel superhero movies, three Star Wars movies, two animated Disney films (The Incredibles 2 and the “live action” Lion King remake,) and the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise.

These films have a lot in common. For one thing, Disney and it’s subsidiaries produced and distributed nine out of the ten. Additionally, aside from the Lion King remake, each film was a sequel.* (Not to say that there is anything necessarily bad about remakes or sequels. The Wizard of Oz is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time, but the novel on which was based had been adapted for stage and screen several times before. And several of Shakespeare’s plays are sequels or retellings of old stories.)

The most interesting similarity to me, though, is the fact that the movies all have prominent fantastical elements. None of the films are about ordinary humans interacting with the world as we know it. Aside from Jurassic World and Lion King–which feature invisible dinosaurs and talking animals living in an interspecies hereditary kingdom, respectively–the movies all have space magic and/or superhumans. (There is probably a fair distinction to be made here between science fiction and fantasy, but I am not the person to make it. And, as Arthur C. Clark famously put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

At the risk of being predictable, I’d like to compare these blockbuster movies with a couple classics of Russian literature.

At a glance, Alexander Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is also fantastical. It has a vengeful ghost and a magical formula to make certain playing cards into guaranteed winners. However, only one character, Hermann, sees the ghost. Hermann is also the only one who attempts the winning trick or sees the titular playing card wink its eye. And before all of that happens, the narrator tells us of “the disordered condition of [Hermann’s] uncontrollable imagination.” At the end of the story, Hermann is committed to an insane asylum. The story is overtly fantastical, but it is possible that Hermann is simply insane, and that all of the supernatural elements of the story are the products of his disordered imagination. That ambiguity, in my opinion, makes the story more compelling.

Similarly, there is an overtly fantastical story embedded in Dostoyevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha a tale about Jesus returning to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus heals the blind and raises a young girl from the dead before being imprisoned and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor. Notably, Jesus is not mentioned by name, but is only referred to as “He” (spelled with a capital “H” in every English translation that I’ve seen.) At one point, Alyosha interrupts to ask whether this is all in the Grand Inquisitor’s imagination or whether he has somehow mistaken some ordinary person for Jesus. “Take it as the last,” replies Ivan, “if you are so corrupted by modern realism and can’t stand anything fantastic. If you like it to be a case of mistaken identity, let it be so.” Ivan goes on to explain that isn’t important whether the prisoner really is Jesus or merely “the delusion of an old man of ninety, over-excited by the auto da fe of a hundred heretics the day before.” What matters is that the appearance of Jesus (real or imagined) presents the character of the Grand Inquisitor the opportunity to give voice to his deepest thoughts.

The same is true of The Queen of Spades. Whether Hermann saw the ghost because he was insane or went insane only later is not really important. What matters is that the appearance of the ghost gave Hermann the opportunity to yield completely to his avarice and advance the plot of the story.

Who knows, maybe the fantastical elements of blockbuster films are also intentionally ambiguous devices that ultimately reveal the souls of the characters.

Beer of the week: Smittytown ESB – This fantastic Extra Special Bitter comes from Temperance Beer Company in Evanston, Illinois. It is dark gold in color, with a slight haze. The beer is very effervescent, with an aroma of caramel malt. The caramel malt leads the flavor as well, and is followed by a nice hops kick in the back of the throat. Smittytown is a great, well-balanced brew.

Reading of the week: The Grand Inquisitor from The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevski – This excerpt is from the beginning of Ivan’s tale, when Jesus first appears in Seville and performs miracles. (Note that I do not hesitate to call the visitor Jesus. This is because 1) the story makes it clear that everybody can tell who He is just by looking at Him, and 2) Ivan says that it doesn’t matter if it is really Jesus or not, so it isn’t worth any effort to avoid using His name.)

Question for the week: Why are fantastical stories occasionally thought of as juvenile and lowbrow? After all, many bonafide classics are highly fantastical, such as Gulliver’s Travels, The Divine Comedy, and several of Shakespeare’s comedies.

*A couple of the movies are not generally referred to as sequels, such as Rogue One and Black Panther. But the fact that they are stories that take place in the same universes as earlier movies makes the distinction pretty tenuous.


Pilgrim’s Pride

There are some who would call a visit to the Hall Of Fame or trip to Munich for Oktoberfest a “pilgrimage.” For the most part, those statements would be made tongue-in-cheek. But in what way does such a journey differ from an “actual” pilgrimage?

Even traditional religious pilgrimages had an element of vacation about them. Before modern transportation, it would not have been uncommon for people to live their entire life in a small village. The journey for a peasant from a remote farmstead to a city with a cathedral would have to be more than a religious or spiritual experience. He would see products, buildings and even whole classes of people that were totally novel to him. For the more well-to-do pilgrim, the vacation aspect can become even more prominent. Mecca (which has become an absolute byword for a pilgrimage destination) has swanky hotels, fancy restaurants and high-end shopping to accommodate the pilgrim of means. For Catholics, the religious experience is still important, but a trip to the Sistine Chapel is about the art first and foremost.

What really separates the pilgrimage from vacation is the aspect of sacrifice. Sure it takes time, effort and money to go on any trip, but a trip to Graceland can’t really be “offered up” as penance. Especially for the poor or ill, the hardship of the journey is actually treated as a bargaining chip with God or the Saints. “They didn’t answer your prayers when you were praying at home? Make a pilgrimage and let them know you are serious!” There is no reason to expect that Mary’s power to intercede for the ill is limited to a small town in France, but by actually making the effort to travel to Lourdes, the faithful ill make a claim that their effort deserves Mary’s attention. (Attention she apparently isn’t in the habit of giving to homebodies.)

So my trip to England may not have technically been a pilgrimage, no matter how good the beer was.

Beer of the Week: Bishops Finger – According to the label, “Bishops Finger is named after an ancient Kentish signpost found on the pilgrims’ way pointing to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas à Becket.” What a perfect beer for this post!

Also, there is some interesting background information about the beer regarding economics and politics. Bishops Finger was first brewed to celebrate the end of malt rationing after WWII. For well over a decade after the war, the government imposed rations on food items. Barley malt being a food item, the beer industry was greatly discouraged. (Although rationing was not as severe in the United States, some well known economic thinkers have speculated that the “great depression” was ended not by war-time government spending, but by war-time austerity. Not only did people spend less on discretionary items, they saved more in the form of war bonds. The result being that when the war ended, there was a good deal of private capital accumulated and ready to be invested. But that is another post.)

And now, Bishops Finger has been granted a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Have you ever heard pedants prattle on about Jack Daniels not being bourbon because it is not distilled in Kentucky? Or I about sparkling wines not all being from Champagne, France? Well now they can assert that Bishops Finger is the only real “Kentish strong ale.”

History, economics and protectionism not withstanding, this is a great beer. It is a beautiful copper color with a thick head that laces wonderfully. The smell has hints of caramel and sweet malt. It is full bodied and smooth and simply delicious.

Reading for the Week: The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer – This Prologue paints an amazing picture of society, with all of its strata, in Chaucer’s time. However, this excerpt is not about the pilgrims themselves, but the spring-time conditions that inspire travel.

Question for the week: Where would you go on a beer pilgrimage? Tell us in the comments.