Here we sit, on a cusp, between an election and the holiday season.
This seemed like an excellent week for an examination of leadership, as shown on television, and in great books. I want to start by describing a TV series which I've recently had the opportunity to watch on DVD, and then go on to a pair of recently written books which would make wonderful holiday presents for anyone who is capable of enjoying the printed word. This week's book selections all deal, to one degree or another, with leaders, whose leadership has been filtered through the opinions of others - often others who shared a different view of the world. Sometimes a single paragraph is enough to know about someone, but in this case, we're talking about long, long biographies which leave us really feeling that we know people who once had great power.
The brilliant thinker, teacher and author C.S. Lewis once said the reason why we read is to know that we are not alone. Why not devote some time to having exclusive, private hours with the great and the powerful.
David Giuntoli portrays a police detective who is descended from the German storytellers, the Brothers Grimm, and who can see many people's true nature, in the television series 'Grimm.'
The television series I want to tell you about is called "Grimm." It's a very well-written series, but your likelihood to appreciate it depends upon your being able to distinguish a metaphor from a fact. If someone tells you it's raining cats and dogs, and you start looking around for Persians and Dalmatians, it's not a series for you.
The series is currently in its second season on NBC. Only the shows from the first season are available for viewing on DVD at this time.
The writers of the series are Stephen Carpenter, David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf. For all practical purposes, the show is a police procedural, such as "NCIS" or "Law and Order," although it bears one very peculiar twist.
The central character is a detective with the Portland, Ore. Police Dept. His name is Nick Burkhardt, portrayed by David Giuntoli, and he works with his partner, Hank, played by Russell Hornsby, to solve major crimes, mostly murders.
The twist is that in the very first episode, we learn that Nick is descended through his mother, from the family of the German Brothers Grimm, whose collection of fantasy stories are often bedtime reading for very young children. Usually the stories have been "cleaned up" and "made more moderate" for young listeners, although in fact the originals are often brutal and bloody.
The premise of the series is that those stories are actually true. The human race lives integrated unknowingly with creatures who look human, but who are half animals. These are called "Wesen." When they are stressed, or when they deliberately allow their true natures to peek through their human nature, these creatures assume the appearance of beasts. Some are timid, such as mice and chipmunks, but many of these beasts are deadly snakes, pigs, wolves and the like. The special effects are usually most impressive, although I found a few which were pretty lame.
Nick lives with his girlfriend, who is a veterinarian, and who is probably the weakest character on the show, because even when their home is destroyed by half-pigs or she is captured and tied up by a wicked witch, she remains essentially calm and trusting and doesn't seem to suspect anything unusual is going on.
In the first episode, Nick is visited by his aunt, who has raised him since he was a pre-schooler, following what he believed was his parents' death in an auto accident. The aunt is played by Kate Burton, daughter of Sir Richard, whose shaved head and remarkable gift with halberds and crossbows suggests she isn't the standard old auntie.
Aunt Marie breaks the news to Nick that he is a Grimm, although she barely appears before she is attacked and put into a coma by a crowd of Reapers, whose job it is to reduce the number of Grimms to maintain the balance between humans and Wesen.
She leaves Nick a travel trailer which is packed to the rafters with weapons of every possible size and nature, plus thousands of books about the family's struggles and the best method of overcoming Wesen.
Nick's first full encounter with one of the Wesen is with a Blutbad - in German, it translates "blood bath," and it means, the big bad wolf - who is living under the name of Monroe. Played with amazing skill by an actor named Silas Weir Mitchell, Monroe has sacrificed the animal half of his nature, in order to live in peace with the human race, but he is so sympathetic with those who suffer from attacks by the Wesen, he agrees to help Nick to get rid of the ones which are dangerous.
Like Elliot Stabler on "Law and Order," or like Special Agent Gibbs on "NCIS," Nick is conflicted. He has sworn to obey and defend the Constitution, but sometimes the Constitution's protection of people's rights means he isn't able to inflict upon the guilty his own violent interpretation of justice, so like the other two series' characters, he frequently takes the law into his own hands.
It's fun to watch the transformation of different actors every week into monstrous shapes, although I think the transformation is intended to be symbolic, rather than literal. I know people who are truly vermin, often not so far below the skin line, don't you? Buy the premise, and you can enjoy the show considerably. There is no nudity, as it is a network television show, and the violence is cartoonish, and not terribly frightening for the average person.
If you buy or borrow the entire first series, allow some time so that you can watch one episode at a time, or not more than two. There are five discs in the series, and if you watch three or four episodes in one sitting, it can do grim things to your sanity.
The literal-minded individual who is going to complain that people's heads don't really turn into owls' heads or alley cats' heads may enjoy the series for the special effects or for the criminal investigation procedures. If you have a neighbor who has the nature of a pig or the intellect of a bird, you might enjoy the show a bit more.
Readers know well, by now, that I am a great fan of historical fiction. The greatest characters in history were real people who ate and slept and sometimes trusted the wrong people and sometimes had ideas which made it possible for them to do great things for the people who lived around them.
When we read straight histories, these people can go from seeming like people who actually lived to become wax figures with a great many statistics surrounding them. This person was born in 1227 in Germany and received his education as a page in the household of the Bishop of Cologne. How does one relate to a set of facts such as that?
Margaret George is an author who lives in Wisconsin. She was born the daughter of a man who was employed by the U.S. Foreign Service, and by the time she was 13, she had lived on every continent in the world, except Antarctica. George has taken the ability she got from her unusual childhood - to be faced with complete changes in values, customs, and realities, over and over - and has chosen a number of individuals in history who she believes have been profoundly misunderstood by history.
Her most recent such biography, released in 2011, was a biography of England's Elizabeth I. I haven't gotten that one yet, although I will certainly try to do so. I wrote, several years ago, about her biography of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
This week, I'd like to glance at her biographies of England's King Henry VIII and Egypt's notorious Queen Cleopatra. Some of her other biographies have been Helen of Troy and Mary Magdalene. The greatest handicap to reading a Margaret George biography is that the woman seems unable to bring a character to life in much fewer than a thousand pages. Try to read her books while seated at a desk or a table, because the weight of the books can put your legs or your hands to sleep.
One of the things that is hardest about teaching history is that even students who are seriously trying to learn need to be taught to put historical subjects into their own context. I've had students ask, with all genuine curiosity, why if King Richard III was after her sons, Queen Elizabeth Grey didn't get them a room in a Holiday Inn, somewhere, until the search blew over. They don't understand the lesson until they understand that it absolutely was not possible for her to have done so and why.
Those lessons demonstrate why our ancestors put so much emphasis on what human rights should be, and demonstrate how important it is not to concede even one small element of them.
George's great gift is to produce such a profound amount of context that you close the book, really feeling that you understand this person, why he or she did what was done, and why it was extraordinary or not that they did so.
Henry VIII, for example, whom she examined in "The Autobiography of Henry VIII," was a man who believed his own public relations. He became king at the age of 17, following his father, Henry VII. His father had put an end to what was at that time England's longest and bloodiest civil war, a war which had wiped out most of England's nobility and left the country one of the poorest and more crime-ridden in Europe.
The cause of that civil war was a disagreement over who was and who was not the rightful king. From his cradle, Henry had pounded into his head that the most important duty of any king was to produce a legitimate, male heir, so that when he died, there would be no question who would be next on the throne.
The country, thrilled to have a healthy, good looking, talented young king, told Henry VIII nothing but praise and support, which convinced him that he made no mistakes and was entitled to do whatever it took to rule successfully.
As he becomes increasingly entangled with wives - which are necessary to have that unquestioned heir, and with men who have introduced those wives to him and who pressure the women to whisper into his ear that this bishop is not a true supporter and that duke is being paid by the King of France to undermine his government - Henry became something of a monster, confident that he only did the right thing and that anyone who disagreed with him was dangerous and should be destroyed.
To point out the growing distance between the king's beliefs and reality, the author introduces a narrator in addition to the king. Will Somers was King Henry's official fool, in real life, as well as in the book. In many countries, including England, people were employed as "fools," which meant that they were entertainers who were allowed to tell the king the truth, even when it was something he wouldn't like to hear.
As Henry divorces one wife and beheads the next, Will keeps us aware of what the pressures were on the king and what the king thought he was doing, when he was doing what he was.
Even as long as it was, I found the book difficult to put down until the king draws his final breath.
By contrast, "The Memoirs of Cleopatra" is sometimes even more engaging and sometimes less so.
It is a curiosity of history that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but entirely Greek. In a similar vein, Napoleon was not French, but Italian, Hitler was not German, but Austrian, Catherine the Great was not Russian, but German, and so on. Sometimes it seems people cannot follow the leadership of one of their own people, but will follow a dynamic foreigner, to triumph or to destruction.
Much of what we know about Cleopatra, we know through Caesar Augustus, who defeated her army and navy, caused her death, and annexed her country into the Roman Empire. If she was right, in any way, he was wrong to do that, so he took care to hire historians and biographers to create an image of sensuality, excess, willful caprice, and more.
George has dug under those layers of propaganda, and has found a believable, human person who did what she thought she needed to do, for the good of her children and her country. Sometimes she made mistakes - as do we all - but this book can remove the image of Elizabeth Taylor being dragged around on a huge throne made in the shape of a Sphinx, while being fed grapes by slaves.
The weakness of the Cleopatra biography is that the queen's downfall goes on for more than half of the book, and even a dedicated reader starts wanting it all to be over. The poundage of the giant book gets difficult to carry, in more ways that one.
I found myself putting it down for days at a time, then picking it up and diving back into its stories.
Fortunately, because Cleopatra was something of a realist who didn't spend much of her life in deceiving herself, we don't need a second narrator. We are meant to believe her words at face value.
George's books were printed by St. Martin's Griffin Press in New York City. They are priced for sale at $14.95 for King Henry, and $15.95 for Cleopatra, although the books are a few years old and can probably be found at a discounted price.
For easy searching, Henry's ISBN number is 0-312-19439-0. Find Cleo with 0-312-18745-9. Spend some time with the people who made your world.