Friday, February 24, 2012

Terry Pratchett's Cohen the Barbarian and You

Every day of my life is kind of a pursuit of a wish: the wish that my students will grab some of the wisdom that the great minds of literature have set down for them. The juicy apples just dangle there above them, but I can't do the picking and hand them out. It only works if the kids climb the ladder themselves. I can hold the ladder so it doesn't fall, but ... well, you get the tired metaphor.

In high school, I saw myself in Hamlet. I looked at him and I saw a guy who thinks too much,  but, more importantly, I saw that the definition of thinking too much includes thinking one's way straight through the time when one should have acted. That revelation made a big difference in my life. Many have survived various act fives as a result.

Cohen the Barbarian by Peter Vidani
In one college class we read a lot of writers like John Cheever (a much underrated American writer, as far as I'm concerned) who dealt with suburban life and marriage in particular. I remember seeing something unsettling in many of the suburban men depicted in his (and Updike's) work: these chaps were boring to their wives, yet had no clue. Typically, the wives cheated on them and the oafs were blindsided. Horrifying. I vowed, at that point, to at least try not to be that guy. I learned that you had to bring something to the table as a husband. Your wife wasn't going to be eternally in awe of your awesomeness. You had to work to make her happy and not expect that your happiness and/or dominance in your own work was going to do the trick. You'd have to ask my wife if I have succeeded... (Oh, wait -- there's a text coming in...oh, bother.)

Anyway, you get the point. Read "The Astronomer's Wife" by Kay Boyle and you will know the kind of story I am talking about. So many self-satisfied dudes walking around feeling sufficiently manly when their wives see it quite another way...

My point is, I took this stuff to heart -- and a lot of other stuff, too.

So, today, in my sci-fi and fantasy class, I was discussing Terry Pratchett's delightful fantasy deconstruction, "Troll Bridge." It just made my heart ache to look at the kids in front of me and to think: It's here. A lesson that could change your life. It's right here. Just grab it.

It really does make my heart ache sometimes.

I tried. I truly did.

Here stands Cohen the Barbarian, along with his horse, shivering in the cold. The horse tells Cohen they should retire. There just are not enough monsters to kill -- trolls have all gone to work in the cities and left the bridges and some have even opened saw mills to make ends meet. The adventuring has dried up and Cohen is too old for it anyway.
     "You must have plenty of treasure stashed away," said the horse. "We could go Rimwards. How about it? Nice and warm. Get a nice warm place by a beach somewhere, what do you say?"
   "No treasure," said Cohen. "Spent it all. Drank it all. Gave it all away. Lost it."
   "You should have saved some for your old age."
   "Never thought I'd have an old age."

This is simple stuff -- the message is clear (with a cool little spin not just on the tendency to avoid thinking about death but on having predicted a glorious warrior's end that never came). But the poetically delightful conclusion, after Cohen decides not to kill Micah the troll (in order to keep at least one old school troll out under a bridge) is so distressingly beautiful, that it could well change a kid's life -- if he only would listen:  
   The air blew off the mountains, filling the air with fine ice crystals. It was too cold to snow. In weather like this wolves came down into villages, trees in the heart of the forest exploded when they froze. Except there were fewer and fewer wolves these days, and less and less forest.
   In weather like this right-thinking people were indoors, in front of the fire.
   Telling stories about heroes.
...telling stories of when we were young; when times were better; when fourth-graders didn't have iPhones; when you could sleep with the door unlocked; when boys were boys and girls were girls; when people feared God; when money grew on trees and you didn't need seatbelts to stay safe...

...when heroes fought monsters and won glory and treasure and the world rang with the clarion tones of steel on steel that said someone was fighting for right.

I'm holding the ladder, kids. Climb on up.


  1. So as not to get too sappy and mushy... I will just say that I feel I picked that juicy apple, I climbed that ladder. You and what you taught me have stayed with me. Thank you for caring about us students and making literature come alive.

    1. Dana -- It means more than even a windbag like me can express to hear you say that. Maybe it's worth keeping up the hard work, after all... Thanks again. I hope all is well!

  2. When I was in high school, my English teacher spent a year prepping us for the AP exam by walking us, page by page, line by line, with a greater care than any of my college professors ever did, through the works of several great authors, including Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, and Dostoyevsky.

    When exam day came, I answered the big essay question with a work I'd read on my own: Fahrenheit 451. I was terribly impressed with myself, but the teacher, despite being an avowed and vocal SF fan, frowned. Nearly 25 years later, I get why: I was mistaking laziness for cleverness, and he'd failed to move a surly underachiever out of his intellectual comfort zone.

    He succeeded elsewhere, though. When he graded that year's sole creative writing assignment, he wrote only one word on my paper: "clever(ish)." I'd never known such subtly damning praise, and I spent years making sure that my writing, whatever its other flaws, would never again earn an "ish."

    You may find, years from now, to your very great surprise, that you likewise steered students away from stupidity with a single perfect word.

    1. A great story, Jeff. And certainly a reminder of the responsibility of a teacher and of the care we must take with our words. I hope to do no harm with my own words and maybe to inspire with them once in awhile...

  3. Even though I may have easily been one of your laziest students, I cannot express the importance of what you instill in those students that are willing to reach for those apples. Keep on keepin' on, Mr. Matt. Everyone should get to experience having a teacher/professor like you.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. (I was a lazy student, too -- but I did keep m y eyes and my mind open.) It means a lot to hear that.