The idiom "scot-free" means to get away with something without getting punished or having any consequences. So what was the origin of this particular saying? I assumed that it was some sort of reference to the old trope that Scots are cheap, but as it turns out, this isn't the case. Actually, the term comes from an old Scandinavian word, 'skatt' which means 'tax'. In England, the word became 'scot', and referred to a specific type of tax: a municipal tax which was first levied in the 12th century. The scot was paid by villagers or townspeople on their land, the amount of the tax depending upon the size of their property. Some people, however, were exempt from the tax, if their land was poorly located... for instance, with no water access, or in a low lying area prone to flooding. Not being required to pay the tax was referred to as being "scot free". Incidentally, while in England I visited Bath and bought lunch on the Pulteney Bridge which spans the Avon River and has shops all along it. I was told that one of the attractions of building shops on a bridge was that they weren't subject to the scot, since they weren't technically on land.
Pulteney Bridge, Bath
As time went on, "scot" came to be a more generalized term for taxes and fees of various sorts, and "scot-free" could mean not having to pay taxes or dues on a variety of things. There is an example of this in John Wolcot's 1792 poem, Odes of Condolence, which contains the lines: "Scot-free the Poets drank and ate/ They paid no taxes to the State!" Also, in Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1860 work, The Conduct of Life, he refers to the independence of the Saxon people: "No reliance for bread and games on the government, no clanship, no patriarchal style of living by the revenues of a chief, no marrying-on, no system of clientship suits them; but every man must pay his scot." Eventually, of course, the term gradually evolved into the idiom we know today, meaning to escape punishment or consequences. The earliest written example of this which we know of is found in Robert Green's 1588 Pandosoto or Dotastus and Fawnia: "These and the like considerations something daunted Pandosoto his courage, so that he was content rather to put up a manifest injury with peace, than hunt after revenge, dishonour and loss, determining since Egistus had escaped scot-free, that Bellaria should pay for all at an unreasonable price." Another example is found in Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel, Pamela: "She should not, for all the Trouble she has cost you, go away scot-free." So that's where we get the idiom 'to get away scot-free', and it has nothing to do with Scots getting away without paying for anything.
So I stumbled across this online today, and it made me laugh:
I've often found books- usually in stores which sell used ones- shelved in the wrong sections. This can result in some rather odd and amusing shelf mates; I found a couple examples of this on my latest thrift shop book hunt.
First, I found a copy of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in the children's section. Gulliver's Travels is a work of English satire written in the 1700's. It isn't a children's book, though it's often mistaken for one, probably because of the Lilliputian section of the novel. It might also have something to do with the Jack Black movie. In any case, I helpfully removed the book from the kids' section to the literature section.
This next one is a bit of a head scratcher... I found a copy of World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War by Max Brooks in- wait for it- the history section! I don't know what to think about this. I mean, the stock person has to know that we haven't actually had a zombie apocalypse, right? Nevertheless, there it was, large as life... so amusing. I assume that this sort of thing happens a lot- I once found The Secret Garden in the gardening section- so what are the oddest shelf mates or book misalliances that you've seen?
The Empire Strikes Back is the second movie in the original Star Wars trilogy. The middle film in a trilogy generally has a thankless task, being a bridge between the novelty of the first movie and the culmination of the plot in the third. Of necessity, it can't have a neat, concise beginning or an ending with finality. It must provide a coherent narrative and move the plot along without actually solving anything of importance. This is a tricky thing for a film to accomplish, let alone do well, but the second Star Wars movie manages it nicely. The first thing which the film has in its favour is its title, which is descriptive and to the point. What is this movie about? It's about the Empire striking back at the rebel alliance after its ignominious defeat at the end of Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Conversely, The Phantom Menace was about... um.
Another thing which is handled well is the development of characters. Frequently movies, when unable to significantly advance the plot, make the mistake of bloating the narrative with mindless action scenes to give the impression that things are moving along, even if they're not. This wastes a perfectly good opportunity to further the plot through character development, a mistake which Empire doesn't make. This doesn't mean that there isn't any action in the film- there's plenty- but it isn't gratuitous: it is always in service of the plot, and doesn't take the place of character development. Indeed, it frequently augments this development, or drives it. In A New Hope, our main characters are introduced and given broadly drawn character "types". For instance, Leia is the earnest Alliance leader, Luke the talented but naive and inexperienced farm boy, Han the irreverent, self-reliant, self-serving smuggler. But in Empire, these characters are given more depth and experience growth.
The relationship between Han and Leia is an example of this character development. At the start of the film, we see them continuing their rather contentious association, trading barbs and insults. It becomes clear, however, that this is to cover the fact that they actually kinda, sorta like each other. The progression of their relationship through the film is believable and endearing, culminating in the scene on Cloud City. Han continues evolving from a selfish self-serving person into someone who is starting to care about others and about a cause other than his own good.
Luke is also given the opportunity to grow as a character, due to the very smart choice to not make him too talented or too admirable too soon. In A New Hope, Luke is pretty annoying for a good deal of the film- whiny and impulsive. Although he has obviously matured by the start of Empire, he still has a long way to go- as we see when Yoda calls him on his impatient behaviour. This warning about impatience foreshadows Luke's leaving his training unfinished to attempt to save his friends. Speaking of this, the movie makes the unexpected choice of making this action on the part of the hero totally irrelevant as far as saving anyone is concerned. He gets there too late to help Han, and the others escape with the assistance of Lando, not Luke. Not only that, but they have to jeopardize their escape by turning around and coming back for him. In addition, Luke's abilities improve at a believable rate... well, as believable as can be expected, considering we're talking about some sort of mystical power. Luke obviously possesses the "Force" whatever it is, but that doesn't mean that he's able to use it properly after the few lessons that Ben gave him before he let himself be killed (stupid, stupid). Luke has to work and train hard, and we see him fail as often as we see him succeed.
The Empire Strikes Back also gets points for expanding the Star Wars universe. For example, we get a better sense of the Alliance from seeing their base on Hoth. This part of the film also lets us see how the Empire is actually striking back, ruthlessly seeking out pockets of rebels to destroy. Out-gunned and overpowered, the rebels must retreat and regroup, living to fight another day. The introduction of Lando Calrissian was a good move as well, and not only because he's a great character. He- and the mining operation at Cloud City- help expand the perimeters of Star Wars beyond just the forces of the Empire and the rebels. Lando represents the ordinary people, who are hoping that if they just keep their heads down, they'll be able to continue living and working despite whatever political upheaval is going on.
Thankfully, the film doesn't neglect its villain, whose character also undergoes significant development. We are given a glimpse of the back of Vader's head with his helmet off; it is bald and covered with scars, letting us know that his outfit is a necessity rather than a fashion choice. It hints at traumatic events in his past which may partially explain why he is the way he is. Also, while we are left in no doubt as to Vader's ruthlessness and willingness to kill anyone who gets in his way, we know that he doesn't want to kill Luke. This is a puzzler that pays off in a scene which is one of the most famous plot twists in cinematic history.
This scene is set up well, foreshadowed by Luke's vision on Dagobah in which he was fighting Vader, only to find he was actually fighting himself. We also see the quality that, for all his flaws, makes Luke the hero of the tale. Luke is only partially trained, completely out-matched by Vader, bruised and maimed. Worse, his world has just had its foundation destroyed by the knowledge that Vader is his father and those he trusted- Ben Kenobi and Yoda- have obviously lied to him. Despite all of this, when Vader offers to save him, Luke chooses to sacrifice himself instead, resisting the pull of the dark side even though his own side has, for all he knows, betrayed him.
Empire does a good job of setting up for the final film, which is of course one of its most important functions. We are left with several interesting plot thread which will need to be tied up: the fate of Han Solo, Luke's incomplete training and how the knowledge of his relationship to Vader will affect his actions from here on in. Then, of course, there's the little question of the war against the Empire, and who will triumph in the end. The film also hints at a couple of new mysteries which will need to be explained and resolved: Ben and Yoda speak of another who can take Luke's place if he fails... though coupled with the scene of Leia being able to hear Luke calling her from afar, this is kind of an obvious one. More intriguing are the glimpses we get of the Emperor; as powerful and intimidating a villain as Vader is, we see that there is someone who is able to make him kneel and call him 'master'. Ominous.
The film is also interesting in that it is a study in contrasts. It is actually quite funny- more so than the first movie- a lot of the humour found in the malfunctions of the Millennium Falcon, and the crews' attempts to deal with them while attempting to escape the Empire's forces, sniping at each other all the while. At the same time, this movie is really about failure: the rebels lose Hoth and must retreat; Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3P0 are captured; Luke fails to finish his training and then loses to Vader; Han is frozen and taken away by a bounty hunter- and in the end, everything is left up in the air, the outcome uncertain. And yet, the movie works and isn't in the least depressing.
Of course, this film introduces Yoda, one of the most popular Star Wars characters. The reason for this is the genius of Frank Oz, who manages to imbue a puppet with character and emotion which ranges from impish mischief, to crusty wisdom, to ominous foreboding. The value of his work is never more apparent when you contrast this Yoda with the CGI non-entity of the prequels. There is no comparison.
Although I wouldn't call this movie-or, indeed the franchise- deep by any stretch of the imagination, The Empire Strikes Back does present at least one moral dilemma to ponder. When Luke finds out that his friends are in mortal danger, his first instinct is, of course, to rush off to help them. Yoda, however, tells him that if he believes in what they're fighting for, he'll stay and finish his training. Obviously, a fully trained- and still living-Jedi is going to be of more use to the Alliance than a partially trained hothead who'll most likely get himself killed, or worse- turned and used against them. It's the old Coventry conundrum. During W.W. II Coventry, England was the target of a devastating bombing attack by the German air force. In later years, it was claimed that an encrypted message about the attack had been intercepted and translated by the cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park. The claim was that Churchill knew that Coventry was going to be hit, but did nothing to stop it because that would have alerted the Germans that their code had been broken and rendered it useless for the Allies. As it turns out, this wasn't true: they had broken the code, but the message only informed them that there was going to be a strike; it didn't give a location, and Churchill assumed it was probably going to be London again. But if he had known, what would have been the right thing to do- let the attack go on unhindered, sacrificing the lives of the people of Coventry for the greater good? Or preparing for the attack, alerting the Germans that their code was broken, probably resulting in greater loss of life later on? It's something to think about.
In the end, I think that The Empire Strikes Back is an extremely successful sequel to A New Hope. It builds on and expands the story introduced in the first film, develops all of the characters in meaningful ways, and sets up all of the necessary plot elements for the third film in the trilogy. Along the way, it also provides a good mix of fun, action, and drama. It's a pity that The Return Of The Jedi didn't quite live up to the promise of this movie... but more on that later.
"Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings." - Heinrich Heine
Heinrich Heine wrote this back in 1820, and it, along with a few other things he wrote about his home country of Germany, eerily presaged the rise of the Nazi regime. Beginning in the early 1930's, book burnings were held in Germany to destroy any books which were either Jewish, or considered "un-German". Leading the charge to burn the books were German university students; interestingly, it is in today's western universities that the clamor is loudest for censorship and the criminalizing of ideas. I draw no conclusions from this observation, though others may choose to do so. Throughout history, violence against people has frequently been preceded by violence against books and the ideas which they contain. In 213 BC, the Chinese emperor of the time ordered books to be burned, and not long afterwards, scholars to be buried alive. When early Christians started burning books, it wasn't too long before they were burning people at the stake. And, of course, the Nazis took this to a whole new level, as did the Communists under Stalin.
If every generation has its struggle against this sort of intellectual despotism, well, ours is against fundamentalist Islam. Yet again we are reeling in the wake of another horrific Islamic terror attack in which innocent men, women, and children have been slain. Of course- of course- most Muslims, like the rest of us, abhor this murderous violence, but the fact is, a distressing number of them don't have a problem with the motivations behind it. For example, in the UK following the Charlie Hebdo attack, 27% of British Muslims said that they had some sympathy with the terrorists' motives, 32% were not surprised by the attack, and 11% said that the magazine deserved to be attacked. Only 68% thought that attacks on anyone who publishes images of Mohammed are never justified. This is in Britain, one of the most secular places in the world; one can only imagine what these stats would look like in countries where the government is an Islamic theocracy.
So what, you may ask, does this have to do with books? Well, as I stated in the title of this post, I think that books can often be the canary in the coal mine for indicating cultures or regimes which are in danger of giving rise to this type of radicalism. The eastern Islamic countries have a history of banning free thought, speech, and expression which far predates 9/11. The most famous example of this is the fatwa issued on Salman Rushdie in the 1980's after the publication of his book, The Satanic Verses, which is about Mohammed. First the book was banned in Islamic countries, then Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa, ordering the execution of Rushdie. He has been forced to live in hiding with body guards since then, and at least one attempt has been made on his life. This, however, is merely an outward manifestation of policies in these countries designed to keep any books which challenge Islam out of the hands of the populace. The press is strictly controlled, bloggers are arrested, books and music are banned, and don't even get me started on the attempt to keep half of the population- women- illiterate. An indication of how deep the hostility to un-Islamic books runs is a study which was done a few years ago which found that more books were translated into Spanish in one year than have been translated into Arabic in the last 1000 years. Think about that for a minute.
When people are constantly exposed to only one world view and are never challenged with opposing opinions or viewpoints, they never have to question- or even think through- what they believe and why. This invariably leads to zealotry and fanaticism- and sometimes worse. Because how long can you be told that words are evil before you begin to believe the person who wrote those words is evil? When books are banned and destroyed, how much of a stretch is it to think that the people who wrote these books should also be banned or destroyed? And what about the people who read them and espouse the ideas they contain? It's a slippery slope, and the distance from the top to the bottom isn't as great as we'd like to think.
I'm not sure what will ultimately stop radical Islamists and the mentally defective, emotionally stunted, morally bankrupt followers they recruit online, but I know what won't stop them: self-censorship. To my mind, there's been far too much of this going on; it's unhealthy and ultimately I think, the path to cultural suicide. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, no newspapers or news programs would show the cartoons which the magazine staff were killed over. Paintings of Mohammed are routinely removed from museums and art galleries to avoid giving offense. Perhaps the most ridiculous example is that of the officials in Rome, who had the statuary in the Capitoline Museum encased in boxes during a visit from Iranian President Rouhani, so as not to offend him. This sends the message that we are either ashamed of our cultures, or that we are willing to cave in and agree to their terms to avoid trouble... possibly both.
After the Benghazi debacle, the narrative was that the riots and murders were the result of a lame You Tube video, The Innocence of Muslims. The response of the U.S. government was to have the filmmaker very publicly arrested, and make speeches condemning the video and saying, of all things, that "the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." As it turns out, the video had nothing to do with the attack, but even if it had, so what? We don't abandon our freedoms just because somebody violently objects to them. This is not political; I'm not an American and would criticize this action no matter who was responsible. The proper response would have been, 'free people have the right to say, write, and film what they want, and we will defend that right with any force necessary'.
Contrast the above example with P.M. Margaret Thatcher's response to the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Rushdie, a confirmed leftist, hated Thatcher who was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. He engaged in vitriolic verbal attacks on her and, ironically, in the very book which earned him his fatwa, lampooned her in the form of a character named Mrs. Torture. I think it's safe to say that she didn't think much of Rushdie either, but when he was threatened with death she ordered round-the-clock protection for him. Because when the chips are down, principles not politics are what matter. So, when Islamists or any other freedom-hating group starts piling books on the fire, either literally or figuratively, we have a choice to make. Are we going to stand by and watch the conflagration helplessly or are we going to try to stop it, if only to prevent what will surely come next.
I'm back from a long weekend on Prince Edward Island, feeling physically tired, but spiritually rested. It was good to get away- even for three days- from everything. The cabin we stayed in was supposed to have WiFi, but we were warned upon arrival that it was intermittent (as it turns out, it was non-existent) so we were offline for the entire time we were there, and left the TV off as well. It was nice to not even be tempted to check in on the world. We traveled about the Island, stopping in local shops and eateries, walking the shores, and generally doing whatever we took it in our heads to do since we had no set schedule.
While in Cavendish, we visited the cemetery where Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables as well as many other books, is buried. The headstone has the name MacDonald on it because she was married to Rev. Ewen MacDonald and they're both buried there. Her mother and grandparents are also buried in this cemetery, a short distance away.
My favourite times were walking along the sand and the rocky shores, staying on the beach until dark and having a campfire with family and friends. It was a blessed reminder that there is still much that is beautiful and good in this world.
I'm off to Prince Edward Island for a few days; we're taking my Mum over for her birthday and have rented a cabin, as she and my Dad aren't really into camping. I expect I'll be unplugged from electronic devices for most of the time since we have a lot of outdoor activities planned. And, considering what's going on in the world, I'm not sorry. Right now I just feel like being with family and friends and making memories with them on "the fairest land that may possibly be seen" as Jacques Cartier wrote of Prince Edward Island in 1534. It still has a pretty good claim to that description that today.
"Superficially it may appear that I am more interested in books than in people; but I think it nearer the mark to say that I am more interested in people as they are revealed to me in books than as they reveal themselves to me in daily contact." - Vincent Starrett (Born In A Bookshop)