the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

History ends with a wedding.

Close on the heels of my last exciting life event, the publication of my novel, I celebrated another, even more monumental milestone: engagement to my “real-life Sam,” whose name is actually Jordan. We are getting married in May. And I want to take a break from emails about wedding venues and cost breakdowns to share a thought that leaves me in awe every time I consider it.

I try to get across to my literature students the significance of why (almost?) all of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding: because history as we know it ends with a wedding (Revelation 19:1-10). And that wedding is followed by a feast. I love the fact that the very act of getting married and celebrating our marriage symbolizes and proclaims God’s covenant of faithfulness to his people, his church—his bride, as he calls us.

I am trying to keep this in mind as we plan. Regardless of how classy the decorations look or how good the food, our wedding is going to be a picture of God’s love. I can hardly wait.

Loki the attention-seeking son, part 2

As promised, here are some thoughts I added to my conference paper, after doing some significant cutting of rabbit trails on interesting but unnecessary topics from Othello to The Dark Knight. Read the backstory here.

At the end of Thor: The Dark World, like another famous trickster, Tom Sawyer, Loki essentially attends his own funeral and enjoys hearing the eulogy that Thor believes he is delivering to their father.  Even more stunningly, Loki, in the form of Odin, speaks in praise of himself. The praise is restrained, necessarily so as not to destroy the illusion that Odin is speaking, but in essence, Loki uses Odin’s mouth to speak the affirmation he has always wanted to hear from Odin.

[I called this next section of my paper “The Little Blue Frost-Giant Baby Finally Chills Out.”]

In Thor: Ragnarok (2017), directed by Taika Waititi, one of the best-reviewed and certainly the funniest Marvel film to date, Loki’s character undergoes yet another transformation. Although he persists in his deceptive and treacherous ways, he no longer seems to crave a throne. When we first meet him in this film, he is still impersonating Odin and enjoying a stint as Asgard’s ruler, but this scene is played for laughs, and when Thor brings this travesty of a reign to an end, Loki doesn’t put up much of a fight.

Later, during the bizarre interlude on the waste planet of Sakaar, Loki seems content to stay in this galactic backwater and wield such influence as he can as a right-hand man to the Grand Master. He no longer desires the throne of Asgard. There are many possible reasons for his resignation—one is that Asgard is being taken over by the seemingly unstoppable villain Hela—but I believe the real key to Loki’s significantly more relaxed behavior in this film is the early scene in which Odin, who has been living in retirement on Earth, passes out of this world. Flanked once again by his two sons, Odin speaks words of equal love for Thor and Loki, and this time, they are words of simple acceptance, with no talk of thrones or inheritance. Perhaps Loki has come full circle and really believes, once again, that his father loves and accepts him.

There is also an interesting scene immediately after this, in which Thor and Loki meet their evil half-sister Hela. She says to Thor, “You don’t look like Odin,” and then to Loki, who is attempting to negotiate with her, “You sound like him.” This apparent throw-away comment by Hela may confirm to Loki that he is truly Odin’s son—perhaps even more so than Thor.

At the end of Thor: Ragnarok comes probably the biggest departure these films have made from Norse mythology. Traditionally, Loki fights with Asgard’s enemies in the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok. But in the film, Loki fights alongside the gods of Asgard. Although Infinity War calls Loki’s motives into question once again, his choice to fight on the Aesir’s side is significant—and may have happened simply because he finally got his father to look at him.

Loki as an attention-seeking son

A lot of people seem to have Marvel movie fatigue right now; I know I do. (The exception, of course, is the freshness of the recent Oscar nominations and wins of Black Panther.  Let me just go on a rabbit trail for a second and say that as a movie music geek, I was excited to see the baby-faced 34-year-old Ludwig Goransson accept the Best Original Score award for that film. We need some fresh blood in that category, and Goransson’s musically eclectic and emotionally on-point score deserved the win.) Anyway, although many of us are getting tired of keeping track of who has what stone and why, I’ve noticed that my students’ eyes still light up when I mention my favorite Marvel character, Loki (and I mention him more often than is strictly necessary in any college English class). So I trust I will not try your patience if I use this post to test out some ideas on a paper about Loki that I am editing for presentation at a conference this Friday. I originally wrote the paper a few years ago as a chapter, which was ultimately not selected, for an edited collection. It’s 15 pages long, and I need to cut it to almost half that length–while also including some observations on Thor: Ragnarok, which hadn’t been released when I wrote the chapter. So in the next few paragraphs, I’m going to see if I can sketch out my main points briefly and interestingly. Any feedback would be appreciated.

My primary premise is that Loki, as he appears in the Marvel movies (not in traditional Norse myths, where he is quite a different character), is motivated primarily by his desire for respect–or, at bare minimum, attention–from Odin, the adoptive father whom he claims to hate but whose opinion he clearly cares about. My secondary premise is that Loki’s craving for attention manifests itself in his performative behavior. This is where the Marvel character does align with the Norse sort-of-deity: Loki is a shape-shifter, and in the movies, his shape-shifting demonstrates that he will try anything in order to gain an audience. (And although Odin is his primary desired audience, any audience can fulfill his need to some extent.)

This relational dynamic is established in the first film Loki appears in, Thor, which draws from the quasi-Shakespearean world of the classic The Mighty Thor comics and plays to the strengths of director Kenneth Branagh. In its storytelling and staging, this film establishes what I call a Shakespearean inheritance triangle, in which Thor–even during his period of exile on Earth–is consistently portrayed as the biological, legitimate, and/or older son, to whom the kingship legally belongs, while Loki is consistently portrayed as the adopted, illegitimate, and/or younger son. Literally, in terms of the story, it’s unclear which brother is older, and Loki isn’t actually illegitimate, but all of these tropes come into play in the character’s portrayal. With his sardonic humor, intellectual arrogance, and dread of humiliation, Loki fits perfectly within the tradition of the Shakespearean bastard. At the end of this movie, the “triangle” is broken when Loki lets go of Thor’s hand and falls into the abyss, and from this point on, he is “out” as an antagonist.

And he plays this antagonist role with great relish in his next film, The Avengers, in which director Joss Whedon clearly sets up Loki in the role of the supervillain even as he blurs the line between good guys and bad guys. This is the film in which Tony Stark refers to Loki as “a full-tilt diva,” and if I had time I could offer a detailed analysis of the ways in which Loki uses New York City and even the world as his stage (hey! another Shakespeare reference).

I’m going to stop here because this post is getting really long. I may do a Part 2 later this week. I just this moment had a great thought about the scene at the end of Thor: The Dark World in which Loki takes on the form of Odin. And I have some thoughts about the poignant scene in Thor: Ragnarok in which Odin passes from this world with equally loving words for both of his sons. But more on that later. Tell me your thoughts so I can steal your ideas! (just kidding about the stealing)


A week ago, I went to see Puffs, an off-Broadway homage to Harry Potter (but totally unofficial) that was filmed and shown on two nights in selected movie theaters. I am not a theater critic, and I’m certainly not a critic of plays that are filmed and then shown in movie theaters (though this does seem to be an art form–some creative camera work was involved in this one), so I’ll make my remarks from the perspective of a fan.

First, it was amusing to see how the writers bent over backward to avoid using copyrighted names, such as Hogwarts, which they referred to as an unnamed “School of Female Magic and Male Magic,” and Dumbledore, whom they always referred to simply as the headmaster. Other characters, like Cedric Diggory, were called by first name or last name, never both together. In many cases, it was clear that the writers were having fun exploiting the limitations–and, perhaps, gently ridiculing the idea of placing such restrictions on such household names.

The four houses were called Brave, Smart, Snake, and Puff, and the story focused on the Puffs, the house that has the least interaction with Mr. Potter in the canonical story, which meant that this house was the perfect vehicle for exploring the experience of a non-famous, non-chosen student who’s just trying to get through school with decent grades. The protagonist was Wayne, an American kid who ends up at the school by a series of unlikely events, probably fulfilling a fantasy of the writers themselves. I should point out here that the actors were all adults, which says a lot about the intended audience. I think the goals of this play were to make long-time Harry Potter nerds squeal with recognition at the inside jokes, to aim a little irreverence at a sacred cow (without becoming cynical or nasty, although some of the jokes were definitely for a “mature audience”), and to provide a bit of vindication for the Hufflepuffs. The childlike wonder of magic was not really a focus.

The play was only about 90 minutes long, and the seven books provided its organizational structure, so in this sense, it reminded me of a parodic play called Potted Potter that I saw a few years ago. (A lot of the humor came from the forced brevity, kind of like in the popular Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.) The plot stuck to events that happen in the books, except in one (ultimately rather anticlimactic) plotline involving the Death-Eater mother of Wayne’s friend Megan. The play is best enjoyed as sketch comedy rather than as a full narrative arc, although it does have a climax: the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen from the Puff perspective. I don’t want to give away spoilers here in case the filmed version ever comes out on DVD, but I will say that the until-now underrated contribution of the Hufflepuffs in this battle, recently pointed out by J. K. Rowling (wait–am I allowed to say her name?), was given its due here. I thought there were some tonal infelicities in this last segment of the play (i.e. some stuff that was played for laughs that I didn’t think should have been), but the writers redeemed themselves with a heartwarming scene between Wayne and the headmaster, which in itself was a vindication (since in the books, it’s only Harry who gets to process things one-on-one with Dumbledore).

As a Hufflepuff, I enjoyed Puffs; I think I would have enjoyed it even if I were a Brave, a Smart, or a Snake. I also realized that I switched between past and present tense in this post. I hope you didn’t notice.

My Month with Kenneth

Kenneth Branagh, that is.  See what I did with the title, there?

I’ve loved Kenneth Branagh and his art ever since my mom made me read Much Ado about Nothing and watch his exuberant 1993 adaptation when I was in middle school.  I love his non-Shakespeare stuff too; in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he makes the cringe-worthy Gilderoy Lockhart funny and even likeable.

A few weeks ago, I watched Branagh’s 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein twice within the space of four days.  I wanted to show it to the book club I’m faculty advisor for, but first I wanted to watch it (it had been quite a few years since I’d seen it) to make sure I could show it to the students in good conscience, considering that it’s rated R.  I decided that I could, but I prefaced our group viewing with a warning about why it’s an R-rated movie (mostly what the MPAA calls “thematic elements”–it is, after all, about a guy who sews and splices dead human body parts together).  Then I gave them another warning: There’s nothing subtle about this movie.  There’s weeping!  Screaming!  A huge house fire!  A bombastic soundtrack!  Dramatic gestures and facial expressions!  I told the students that I think part of the reason for this lack of subtlety is that it’s an adaptation of a novel from the Romantic period, a novel full of heightened language and unabashed displays of emotion.  (If I had a dollar for every time in the book that Victor Frankenstein flings himself into or out of a conveyance, or his eyes gush with tears…)  The dialogue in the 1994 adaptation is actually pretty understated, but the Romantic emotionalism appears elsewhere in the cinematic elements I mentioned above.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason for the heightened–well, the heightened everything of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, because the same over-the-top qualities appear in other Kenneth Branagh films.  I think the reason is that Branagh, like many film actors and directors from the UK, was first a stage actor and is still actively involved in live theater.  (More on this later.)  But unlike many others, Branagh has continued to bring that stage sensibility to the films with which he’s involved.  Everything is bigger on the stage because there’s no camera or audio equipment to swoop in and catch the flicker of an eyelash or a quiet sigh.  Over the years, the film industry has taught us to valorize intimacy and subtlety, and to view “stagey” as a derogatory term.  Kenneth Branagh’s films often challenge those conventions.  Just watch his wild and colorful Much Ado about Nothing, with its triumphant Patrick Doyle score, and compare it with Joss Whedon’s snarky black and white 2012 adaptation, with its smooth jazz score.

I thought about this more last night when I re-watched Thor (2011), which Kenneth Branagh shocked Hollywood by choosing to direct.  (The one that really shocked me was Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit–I’m still not sure what Kenneth was doing there.)  Because I’m preparing to write an essay about the Thor movies (I’m sure I’ll say more about this in future blog posts), I was taking notes and paying particular attention to the Shakespearean allusions and the stage conventions that appear in this first film.  I noticed that the dialogue, at least in the Asgard scenes, is very different from the snappy, jokey language typical in superhero movies.  This is a Shakespearean family inheritance drama.  Stakes are high, voices are raised, accusations are flung, tears are shed.  I think that may partially explain why some die-hard Marvel fans didn’t care for this movie–it didn’t fit their expectations.







Anyways.  I’m not very good at creating memes.  My point is that there are some fantastic actors in this movie, so we can’t attribute all that yelling, nor those facial expressions (!), to bad acting.  In fact, several of them are also stage actors, and my guess is that they were totally on board with Branagh’s unconventional choice to make a superhero movie look a lot like a live production of Henry V.  (I chose that particular Shakespeare play for a reason, since Branagh on numerous occasions has compared the two stories.  See this fascinating article for details.)

I’ll close this post by saying that next Monday night, my parents are going to see Kenneth Branagh in Harlequinade, a very meta comedy about a troupe putting on A Winter’s Tale, at the Garrick Theatre in London.  (You know that part in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not covet thy parents’ theater tickets”?)  If this rambling post has been accurate, they will be watching Kenneth Branagh do on stage what he has been doing on film (and directing others to do) for years now in defiance of Hollywood convention.  Stick it to ’em, Kenneth.

another brother story

You guys know I like stories about brothers, right? Well, today I wrote down a story that’s been living in my head for a while, and the characters are two brothers. This is a portion of a much longer piece I’d like to write someday–I think it would be best as a screenplay–about a tough drifter type, with the unfortunate name Percy, who has to spend Christmas with his tight-knit family (aunts, uncles, and four male 20-to-30-something cousins) in a small town in England. The portion I’m sharing with you today is from early in the narrative, before anyone knows there’s a long-lost cousin. It introduces the characters and lets you know what Percy will be getting into when he comes on the scene. I apologize in advance–this post will be longer than my usual.

“Before you say anything, I’m not William Wallace; I’m a Pict,” announced John Sinclair as the kitchen screen door slammed behind him.

His brother Brian looked up from the fortress of bar exam prep guides that had once been their parents’ kitchen table.  Blue paint covered John’s freckles, and a kilt covered not very much of his legs, which were slightly purple from the cold outside.  “I didn’t think the Picts wore natty white button-ups,” Brian smirked.

“It would have been more accurate to go shirtless,” John conceded, plunking down a stack of essays onto the counter.  “But that would have been totally inappropriate.”

“I don’t think your 15-year-old girl fan club would agree,” Brian retorted, flashing a rare trickster smile before returning his gaze to a tightly-scrawled sheet of notes.

“You’re mental,” said John, getting a Coke out of the refrigerator.  “Say, that reminds me.  You were locked in your room–”

“–the spare room.”

“Well, yeah, same thing; it’s your old room, isn’t it?”  John looked at his brother quizzically, but Brian was fixed on his notes.  “Anyway, you were up there last night when I told Mum and Dad about my date.  I mean, there’s not much to tell, but you’re always interested in my romantic exploits.”  John concluded with a rueful laugh that clearly indicated that the last term was hyperbolic.

Brian looked up.  “I’m always interested in you acknowledging the existence of anyone who isn’t a blood relative or a student.  Tell me more.”

John pulled out a chair and sat down at the fortress.  “Well, we had a coffee, and she told me about working in London, and about this blog she just started, and I told her…” he paused, trying to remember the conversation, “…about how my students loved it when I came to class in a toga…”

“Bet she thought that was sexy.”

“Actually, I think it weirded her out a bit.”  Brian snorted; John didn’t seem to notice.  He was searching his memory.  “Then I told her about how you were home for the holidays, and how you’re almost a barrister…and I told her about how Peter’s coming home for the holidays, and how he’s writing his thesis on Dickens…and I told her about how Harry’s auto shop has a name from Shakespeare.  People find that interesting, don’t you think?”

Brian sighed.  “What I think is that this girl, woman, whatever she is–doesn’t give a flying fig about your brother and your cousins.  I think I know where this story is going.  Go on.”

John shrugged.  “That’s about all.  We finished our coffee, and she said I was really nice.  That’s it.”

“Yeah, that’s right, John.  You’re really, really nice.”  Brian shook his head and returned to his notes.

“But what does that mean?”  A twinge of desperation made John’s voice crack slightly, and he leaned across the table toward his brother, knocking a book off its stack.  “You say that word like she said it, like it’s some sort of code word.  What horrible thing does ‘nice’ mean?”

Brian rubbed his forehead like it hurt.  “You’re very intelligent, and you look like Eddie Redmayne.  That’s why women go out with you.  But you’re kind of like a child.  That’s why they only go out with you once.”

“You obviously know so much about this,” said John in a voice so toneless that Brian couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic.  John was rarely sarcastic.  So Brian asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

John looked at the ceiling.  “It means…remember when Aunt Susie said you looked like Andrew Garfield?”

“Yeah, so?  She’s weird.”

“She was right!  Any woman would go out with you.  And yet I don’t see you in any long-term relationship.”

Brian gestured at the stacks of books surrounding him.  “I’ve been a little busy, haven’t I?  Anyway, you don’t know what I do when I’m not here.”

“Probably the same thing you do when you’re here, huddle up with your books like some kind of Gothic mad scientist.”  John took a swig of his Coke, and Brian went back to his notes.  There was a long silence.

“Oh, speaking of Aunt Susie!” John said suddenly.  Brian jumped in his chair.  “You know we’re all going over there this evening, because Peter’s coming home?”  The desperation had gone as quickly as it had come; John looked like an unusually cheerful Pict.

“I don’t think I’m going; I need to study,” Brian said, not looking up.

“Oh, come on.  You’ve been studying all day.  Don’t you want to see Peter?”

“I’ll have plenty of chances to see him between now and the new year.  But listen,” Brian pointed his pencil at his brother and gave him a significant look, “lay off Peter about moving back here, will you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.  It’s not just you; it’s everybody.  Every time Peter’s here, you lot are on him about what he’s going to do after graduating.  If I remember correctly, last time you practically had him a job lined up at your school.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” John said.

Brian shook his head and looked back down at his notes.  “Well, I hope it’s nothing to Peter, too.  Just remember he’s a grown man and he can live wherever he bloody well wants to.”

John put his Coke can down slowly and looked at the top of Brian’s head for a few seconds before he said, “Oh, I see.  This isn’t about Peter; this is about you.”

Brian sighed and put his face in his hands.  “Okay, yeah.  This is about me too.  Every time I come here I feel like I’m being smothered.”

“Then why do you come here?” It was hard to tell whether this was a challenge or a sincere question.

“Because it’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not some sort of monster with no familial affection.  I like you, and Mum and Dad, and…everybody, most of the time.  It’s just this town.  It feels like some sort of evil magnetic force sucking everybody back into its vortex of mediocrity.”

“A little dramatic, don’t you think?” John asked with a puzzled laugh.

“Well, look at Harry.  It sucked him in, didn’t it?  In London he was hanging out with real, live literary critics.  The man was brilliant.  I mean, he still is brilliant.  But here he is, fixing cars at Gad’s Hill Auto Repair.”

“Harry likes fixing cars,” John retorted.  His face was still blue, but his ears were turning red.  “And anyway, he wanted to come back here to be around people he knew.  He didn’t want to be alone in London after–”

“Oh, I know what everybody says,” Brian interrupted.  “Harry moved back here because he got divorced.  Well, you know what I think?  I think that’s part of the reason why he got divorced–because he wanted to move back here with his mum, and his wife had the good sense not to want to come to this depressing dump.”

John glared at his brother.  “Don’t you dare say that to Harry, ever.”

Brian threw up his hands.  “What do you think I am, some sort of prat?  Of course I wouldn’t say that to his face.  But it’s true, and I think you know it.”  Brian was quiet for a moment, writing on his notes.  “And you…well, we already talked about you.”  He relapsed into silence.

John finished his Coke.  Brian scanned his notes.  Neither brother spoke for a long time.  Then John said, “I have to go get this crap off my face.  But I want to say one more thing to you.  I know you think I’m some sort of developmentally arrested sad-sack.  But I like my life.  I’m happy, Brian.  And if you’re happy…well, you’re doing a pretty good job of hiding it.”  John got up and threw his Coke can in the recycling bin.

Brian didn’t look up until John was halfway up the stairs.  “All right, I’ll go to the thing for Peter tonight,” Brian yelled.  “Will that make you happy?”

John stopped on the top step.  “You never listen to anything I say,” he said.  “I told you, I am happy.”  He went into the bathroom and shut the door.


Man is a giddy thing. (William Shakespeare said that.)

Tonight I chose Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More as my falling-asleep music.  Bad idea.  These are songs for thinking, some for dancing, but not for falling asleep.  So I’m still awake with this review/listening guide in my head, and I want to write it down before I do fall asleep and forget everything I want to say.

In case you have been living under a rock (in which case you probably need to “Roll Away Your Stone”) and have not yet listened to Mumford and Sons, let me try to encapsulate their style for you: exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist.  (In fact, that’s their genre on iTunes.  That entire phrase.  Just kidding.)  I say “bluegrass” because of the prominence of the banjo and mandolin and because Marcus Mumford’s accent sounds, to my American ears, like the British equivalent of hillbilly.  (Example: In several songs, such as “White Blank Page,” which include non-verbal syllables, he says “Arr,” not “Ahh.”)  The English Renaissance part comes in with the Shakespeare references, found in the album title, the title track (whose lyrics are largely lifted from Much Ado about Nothing), and “Roll Away Your Stone,” where the line “Stars, hide your fires” is wrenched rather startlingly from its original Macbeth context and put to effective use.  Other early modern touches include a song that seems to be about the Black Plague (“Winter Winds,” which contains a rare 21st-century use of the sadly neglected word “pestilence”) and some tunes I can only describe as troubadour-ish (hear, for example, the little melody at the beginning of “Roll Away Your Stone”; it sounds like something they might have danced to in the movie Elizabeth).

My favorite thing about the album is that it subtly tells a story.  There is a clear introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution.  I’ll try to outline the plot here without getting too long-winded.  (Yeah, good luck with that.)  After “Sigh No More,” which is the prologue, we have a solid line-up of hits: “The Cave,” “Winter Winds,” and “Roll Away Your Stone.”  These are songs that you should roll down your car windows and shout along with.  They are also triumphant, almost defiant, declarations of independence (especially “R.A.Y.S.”–I think it’s time to start abbreviating this title).  The series of songs ends with the line, “You have neither reason nor rhyme / With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.”  These numbers are life-affirming, but all of this brazen exuberance so early on the album makes us wonder whether it can last.

Alas, it cannot.  With “White Blank Page” and “I Gave You All,” something bad happens. (I mean in the plot, not to the music.)  This bad thing is all the more frightening because it remains undefined.  These are break-up songs, I suppose, but the singer/narrator seems not only to be breaking up with a girlfriend but with himself and even with God.  (Yes, I think the lyrics justify these weighty interpretations.  This is a weighty album.  It’s good when you find a weighty album that you can dance to.)  In the midst of it all, however, there’s still an ember of hope (a key word on this album).  The last words in “White Blank Page” (besides “Arr”) are “Lead me to the truth, and I / Will follow you with my whole life.”

There’s a little bit of a turning point in the next song, “Little Lion Man.”  For one thing, this is the first “upbeat” song since “R.A.Y.S.”  For another, the singer is able to make a confession: “It was not your fault, but mine.”  After the blame-casting of the two previous songs, this admission is refreshing, though perhaps it goes too far in the self-castigating direction.  The song is cathartic, anyway.  It’s another fun one to yell out the window, not least because you get to yell the f-word several times.

The next song, “Timshel,” is a puzzle, like its title.  It’s one of only two songs on the album (the other is “After the Storm”) that stays quiet the whole way through and doesn’t swell to a climax.  In this bittersweet song, someone seems to be dying.  Or giving birth?  Or being baptized?  I don’t know whether the death is literal or symbolic, but the water imagery seems to indicate it will be followed by some sort of rebirth.  The most profound line on the album, in my opinion, is in this song: “Death is at your doorstep / And it will steal your innocence / But it will not steal your substance.”  Someone should preach a sermon about that.  This song ranks, along with some David Crowder songs (“Come Awake” from A Collision and pretty much the entire Give Us Rest album), as one of my favorite songs about death.

Next comes the climax of the whole album: “Thistle and Weeds.”  Unlike some of the earlier numbers, this one doesn’t necessarily catch your attention from the beginning; you might be tempted to skip it, but don’t.  Soon enough you’ll get to a percussive thunderstorm of piano and drums, over which Marcus hollers a line from an earlier song: “I will hold on hope.”  In “The Cave,” it’s easy to mentally skip over this line; here, we get its full significance.  The protagonist of the story is holding on for dear life.  Someone or something is trying to steal his hope, hence the desperation of the vocal.  The song ends quietly, but without much resolution.  We have to wait until the next song to find out what happened.  (N.B. “Thistle and Weeds” contains easily the creepiest line on the album: “Let the dead bury their dead / And they will come out in droves.”)

The next song is “Awake My Soul,” and it might be my favorite, although it’s nearly impossible to choose.  This song doesn’t have the wild abandon of the set of hits at the beginning of the album, but its happiness is richer and deeper because it’s been tempered by sadness.  Yes (spoiler alert), the protagonist has held onto his hope.  As you can probably guess from the title, with this song comes the resurrection (if not bodily, then at least spiritual) that has been foreshadowed in earlier songs, such as “Winter Winds” (“You’ll be happy and wholesome again”) and “Timshel.”  Here, the expression “meet your maker” is not ominous, like it tends to be in common usage, but joyful.

Part bad-ass gunslinger ballad, part jeremiad against greed and oppression, “Dust Bowl Dance” is the only song that seems out of place on this album.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good song.  I just think they should have saved it for their next album.  For one thing, it breaks up the flow of the story; there shouldn’t be anything bleak after “Awake My Soul,” and “Dust Bowl Dance” is pretty bleak.  For another, with its distorted guitar and manic cymbals, it’s more rock than (remember?) exuberant, theatrical bluegrass with an English Renaissance twist.  And finally, speaking of the English Renaissance, the Dust Bowl was a 20th-century American event, so it’s weird to encounter it here.  Still, I love the inflection in Marcus’s voice on the last line: “You haven’t met me; I am the only son.”  It should be in a good tragic action movie.

The aptly-named “After the Storm” is the last song and the other quiet song.  It could be anti-climactic, but only if you’re not paying attention.  The guitar is lovely, and the lyrics are rain-drenched with meaning.  It’s not a happily-ever-after ending because it’s not really an ending.  The song uses a lot of future tense: “There will come a time, you’ll see / With no more tears, and love will not break your heart.”  You’re admonished to “Get over your hill and see / What you find there.”

What will we find there?  A second Mumford and Sons album?  Yes, happily, later this year!  But for now, go back and listen to Sigh No More (or “Come out of your cave” and listen to it for the first time).  I’ve told you what I’ve found in this album; now I’d love to know what you find there.

Happy birthday, Charles Dickens!

Today is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth.  I have been trying to decide how best to use my blog to commemorate the day, and I haven’t come to a satisfying conclusion.  I think the problem is that there’s too much Charles Dickens.  I can’t pick just one favorite character from his teeming world, where every time you turn a London street corner you’re likely to run into an old enemy, a dear school friend, or a long-lost relative.  Or, maybe just a singular character whom you ran into on that same street corner ten years before.  I can’t pick just one favorite line from the most verbose Englishman since Shakespeare (I’m not doing an accurate word count, here; I’m just referring to the exuberant flow of language that characterizes the work of both authors), who mastered both snark and sentiment, and can still make readers who have never seen the Thames feel a creeping London fog rolling in with the night over the river.

To my readers who don’t know what I’m talking about: for the characters, read David Copperfield.  For the descriptions, read Bleak House.  For something short to start off with, read A Christmas Carol.  And let me know what you think!