Tuesday, February 06, 2007

King Of Shadows: Book Group Discussion


Welcome to the Scholar's Blog Book Discussion Group

And to its first discussion. This month, we're discussion Susan Cooper's timeslip tale, King of Shadows. The title refers to these lines of Shakespeare's:

"This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak'st,
Or else commit'st thy knaveries wilfully."
"Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook."

- Oberon and Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III Scene 3

And as you will know, if you've already read the book, the tale centres on two performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that are performed 400 years apart.

Here are some of the things I love about this book:

1 - The opening: "Tag." - just one word and yet my attention was snagged and I found myself rushing into the tale...

2 - Nat's introduction to Will Shakespeare:
"'Greet Master Shakespeare, boy.'
It was as if he'd said, 'Say hello to God.'"

If you're a big fan of Shakespeare (or any other author), you know exactly what Nat means by this comment.

3 - The way the time-travel element is handled, with Nat asleep, so the mystery of how it happens is preserved. You don't have to worry about the science, you can just enjoy the magic of the story.

4 - The use that Cooper makes of Shakespeare's own words, with the quotations both from the plays and the Sonnets. I've long known and loved

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


and

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


the last two lines of the latter are ones that Nat mentions after Arby gives him a copy of the Complete Sonnets (chapter 19).

5 - The way the tale invites you to see or read A Midsummer Night's Dream for yourself. I hadn't seen it before reading this book, but I rented a DVD of Michael Hoffman's movie (with Stanley Tucci playing "Puck"). And I'm quite sure I got more out of the story, having read Cooper's book first.

So what do you like about this book ? What don't you like or what do you feel doesn't work ?

Oh and if anyone is interested, the carol that the Guy's Hospital nurse sings to 16th century Nathan Field in chapter 9, is the Coventry Carol, and you can find the words here and the music here.

37 comments:

Emmaco said...

Scary to be the first commenter!

This was a great book choice, Michelle! I really enjoyed this book on its second read (I have only a vague sense I wasn’t too fussed the first time around).

I’m a sucker for acting stories and I liked how the book showed the discipline and camaraderie of acting. And how the differences and similarities between the profession were shown over time.

I loved how Cooper infused such a sense of warmth into the scenes in the past. I was miserable along with Nat at his returning to the present.

I also admired how the time travel was handled, and that Nat spent time being sleepless and worried but didn’t spend pages and pages being in (boring) time travel shock.

My big problem with the book is the whole reason Nat was switched in time. It seemed weak. If the original actor had the plague as badly as he did when he arrived in the hospital, he would presumably have been too ill to act with Shakespeare. And most cases of the bubonic plague are not transmitted from person to person, but rather from rats and their fleas, so I don’t think it was the best illness to pick anyway.

What did people think of how the language problem was handled? Although it might be unlikely Nat so happily settled into the language, I thought it worked well just having some thees and thous like he said, so that readers of all ages could enjoy it!

Catherine said...

I also found myself looking for the storyline of Midsummer Night's Dream, and found that reading through the story version (Favorite Tales from Shakespeare by Bernard Miles, illustrated by Victor Ambrus) brought new insights to both Shakespeare and Susan Cooper. Normally not a person who pays attention to illustrations, I even appreciated Ambrus having labeled the characters by name.

On the negative side, I wondered about the youth audience of this book. Yes, it would be classified as both historical fiction and fantasy, but would I be able to interest any child in reading this book? The appeal of time travel would be countered by the "heavy" use of Shakespeare to most of the kids at my library.

I kept waiting for some other character from 1999 to show up in 1599 and suspected it might be Arby who makes the comment about directing the play in "this century" but then I didn't make the connection to him and Burbage until Arby suggests that Nat saved Shakespeare from the plague at the end of the book.

By contrast, Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, a historical novel about the same time period, has a bit more exciting action but did not entice me to delve into Shakespeare myself. Thus Cooper's book wins points for awakening an interest in Shakespeare.

Michele said...

emmaco, thanks for starting the discussion !

I confess, I cry every time I read it, when Nat returns the present - and I've read it four or five times now...

And I'm with you on the sense of warmth...

With regard to your comment about the 16th century Nat Field, he had only just arrived at the Globe from St Paul's - as in within the past 24 hours - that's why no one knew that 20th century Nat wasn't the Nat Field they were expecting...

As for the language problem, Rachel tells Nat, in chapter 2, that Nat's accent is far closer to a 16th century English accent than a 20th century English person's accent would be - and I know that's accurate, from my own language studies at college - so I don't see that as unlikely... I thought Cooper got it right, with the "tha's", etc.


Catherine - I don't know myself, about children's reactions to the book, but there are some librarians in this group and I'm sure someone will be able to answer your question !

Jen Robinson said...

I also enjoyed the book, Michele. I thought that the historical detail was excellent, and a good source of amusing moments, when Nat interpreted what he was seeing (and tasting, and smelling). I especially liked his reference to all of England being buzzed most of the time. Of course Cooper writes well, so that helps, too.

But I do agree with Emmaco that the reason for the time travel was weak. It left me unsatisfied and questioning. If Arby/Burbage had the power to switch the two Nats, to save Shakespeare, why couldn't he have saved Shakespeare some other way? Like keeping the original Nat from getting the plague in the first place. Or arranging for 1599 Nat to get run over or something, so that Shakespeare wouldn't be infected. But of course any time travel story has paradoxes, and it's a bit unfair to speculate like this.

I also personally felt that Nat put Shakespeare on a bit too much of a pedestal. It was like either he really thought that Shakespeare was God (or Jesus, at any rate), or he had some other overwhelming and non-platonic attachment to him. Maybe I'm just cynical, or not enough of a Shakespeare fan, but Nat's awe, and later sadness when he left 1599, seemed overdone to me. I realize that this may be controversial, since the relationship will be the reason a lot of people like the book. And I did find the characters of both Shakespeare and Nat engaging and likable. But Nat thinks about Shakespeare with a devotion that one usually sees either for a religious figure, or a hopeless crush. Or, I'll admit, maybe a fatherless kid looking for a role model... I'm just not sure.

Michele said...

Putting on my pedant's hat now Jen - if Arby had found some other way to save Shakespeare, we wouldn't have had a story ! I have to say I've never had any priblem with the means Arby uses to save Nat...

And as a huge fan of Shakespeare, I'm inclined to take Nat's side, and say that I found Nat's reaction to Shakespeare wholly understandable. Nat's father was a poet and killed himself, Shakespeare's a poet (and a playwright, obviously) and has lost his son - I think they needed each other: Shakespeare for the inspiration that Nat's "Puck" gave him, and Nat for the father figure and the emotional unlocking. I thought Cooper made it quite clear that Nat had locked his grief and anger (at his father's action) away for three years and there's no way that's healthy !

Sheila said...

I loved this book! But then, I have yet to read anything by Susan Cooper that I haven't loved. It actually reminded me a bit of Victory, because both of them involved a modern child experiencing a historical period through supernatural means.

I had wondered if it would be difficult to read for someone not familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream, since the play is such an integral part of the story. I'm familiar with the play, so it was hard for me to judge. I'm glad to know that it's possible to enjoy it without knowing the play. For me, though, knowing and loving A Midsummer Night's Dream enhanced my enjoyment of King of Shadows.

I loved the relationship between Nat and Shakespeare, and didn't find anything odd about it. I agree with Michele that Shakespeare became a surrogate father to Nat.

As for kids liking it, I can only give an example of one: my 11-year-old son liked it (and he plans to pop over here and join the discussion when he can). I suspect that any kids who love acting and the theatre would love and be able to relate to this book. Librarians and teachers trying to interest a child in this book might promote it along those lines. Love of the theatre comes through in every line of this book.

Michele said...

Oh that's great, Sheila ! I'm delighted to know David will be joining us !

I had absolutely no problems enjoying this book without being familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream - I'd read it twice before I saw the film...

Erin said...

Let me just say, I loved loved loved this book.

Catherine - an 11 year old (Sheila's son) a 16 year old (me) and my friend who's 14 all highly enjoyed this book, so I think maybe that clears up your youth appeal question? :)

Michele, I liked how you mentioned the time travel - "You don't have to worry about the science, you can just enjoy the magic of the story." So many time travel stories seem to be overly worried about the scientific aspect. Which can get kind of annoying!

And I have to disagree with Jen. If I was the one meeting Shakespeare, I would be completely in awe. Add Nat's need for a fatherly figure in his life, and I think that part of the story makes sense.

This was the best Shakespeare-related book I've read (I've read the Gary Blackwood books too, Catherine). And as A Midsummer Night's Dream holds a special place in my heart (I acted in a play-version as the main Fairy...you know, the one who talks to Puck in his first scene) I adored reading about what the production might've been like in Shakespeare's day and age.

Also, I'm a theatre/acting fanatic, so that added to my liking of the book...

Michele said...

As I often say, Erin, "Time Travel does my head in" - but I thought Cooper's approach was just right...

Sheila, I forgot to say, that I also compared Victory to King of Shadows when I'd read the former - although it's done rather differently to King of Shadows. Folks, if you've not read Victory (which I reviewed here), I recommend it heartily !

Sheila said...

Michele, I think reading it twice counts as being familiar! Although for me, it's a lot easier to understand Shakespeare seeing it than reading it. I wasn't sure from the descriptions here whether everyone had read and/or seen it prior to reading this book or not. Catherine mentions reading a story version of it but I wasn't sure whether that was before or after reading King of Shadows. Is there anyone here who hadn't read or seen the play before reading the book? I'm just curious to know how comprehensible it is without having some background.

We had also recently read Shakespeare Stealer and I couldn't help comparing as I read King of Shadows. I liked both books, but I enjoyed King of Shadows a little more. I think it's partly that the characters are so vivid and the relationship between Nat and Shakesoeare so poignant, and partly because Nat, being from our time, comes from a frame of reference closer to our own.

David said...

Hello! I'm Sheila's son, 'popping in' to talk about the king of shadows! I only just finished it this morning- I started yesterday afternoon. It was very entertaining! Especially having watched A Midsummer Night's Dream myself. Just a note, did anyone ever realize the joke in bottom's name?(It's a bad word, sorry) Bottom = 'Ass' 'Ass' = Donkey. Bottom's Head = Donkey. Sorry about that, i just thought it was interesting.

And yes, time travel is hard to wrap your head around. Always. However, having read, watched, and heard much time travel stories, it just made it all the more enjoyable for me. Although, I do have one question. If Arby is Burbage, how is he still alive? Sorry if this is obvious, sometimes I just can't figure things like that out.

And about appealing to kids... Well, I enjoyed it. That much I can say. Frankly I don't like the stereotype that seems to be spreading lately, that kids do not enjoy anything educational. I enjoy educational things very much! And I do believe that many other children do too. ;) I think that no matter how you think of it, anyone could enjoy anything.

But back to the book itself. I enjoyed seeing how Nat reacted when one of the 'Groundling's' shouted out, "It's not him!". However, It seems strange to me that Gil and Rachel accepted the whole thing so easily.

David Ruth

Michele said...

Sheila, I may not have made myself clear (it's been a shatteringly tiring day !) - I meant I had read KoS twice, before I saw the film of A Midsummer Night's Dream (I haven't actually read the play yet - I insist on watching a performance of Will's plays before I read them, since they're designed to be viewed, not read !)...

David, welcome - and thanks for sharing your views on this book, it's good to know there are still some children around who enjoy educational things (I always did when I was a child !). You asked how Arby could still be alive in 1999 ? I presume that in the same way that he has the power (whatever that power is) to swap the two Nats back and forth in time, so too he has the power to send himself backwards and forwards in time...

I didn't find it strange that Gil and Rachel accepted Nat's story so easily - I got the impression that they were two very open-minded people - and as Gil points out, there were just too many authentic details in Nat's account for it to have merely been a dream...

And yes, Bottom the Donkey/Ass is funny !

Erin said...

I watched the play (in London, nonetheless!) and read it AND was in it. So I think I got full enjoyment out of KoS. ;)

actinggal said...

This book was so amazing! I really enjoy acting and reading William Shakespeare’s writings.This book was perfect for me!!

I participated in the theater production of A Midsummer Nights Dream a couple of years ago. It was so fun going back into the world of Oberon, Puck, and the fairies. I could totally relate to the actors and their joys and struggles. I give Susan Cooper two thumbs up for thinking up all that amazing stuff!

Michele said...

Erin, I'm totally envious !

actinggal, I'm glad that you enjoyed it so much...

Has anyone here read James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare ? It's a thoroughly readable, historical and political biography of Shakespeare, and fills in all the background politics of King of Shadows in great detail. I can highly recommend it.

Lady S. said...

Coming in late here, but hopefully not too late...

I didn't get a chance to reread, but remember the book fairly well, and I loved it. As did both my daughters, who read it in their early teens. I love it for all the reasons Emma mentions, and many of Michele's reasons too.

I do have a reservation, all the same, about the rationale for the switch, as a few other people have mentioned. Possibly it's a slightly different angle though, as I'm really more than a bit unhappy at the idea that the universe can be rearranged in order to save any one individual's life, though only as a sort of once-off thing. Is someone who is going to be viewed later as a literary genius more worth saving than anyone else? And why does someone else get to make that decision anyway? I agree in many ways that the book is stronger for leaving the hows and whys of the switch totally vague, but on the other hand, I do feel a bit uneasy about the expectation that the hows and whys can go unexplained in this case simply because it's Shakespeare.

That said, it didn't bother me much while reading the book, as it was all about Nat and his experience with the players and back at home for me, but it did rather niggle a bit underneath. It's possible to let a lot of niggle of that sort go for the sake of a really strong story (which I felt this to be), but it didn't make the question entirely unproblematic either.

Erin said...

A favorite quote from the book:


"But theater? It's not a sport, it's not about winning, it's about people."

"And applause," Gil said, needling. "All those lovely hands clapping. That's what we all like most."

"Not true," Rachel said.

He grinned at her. "An actor's not much use without an audience."

"There you go then," said Rachel. "It's about people."

Michele said...

It's not at all too late - I was hoping the discussion would run for several days (if not a couple of weeks) !

It's interesting that people find the business of the switch to be problematic. Of course, you can easily argue that no one person, not even a literary genius, is worth saving in that way - but then you'd be doing yourself out of a terrific story ! And besides, I feel the switch is as much about helping Nat, as it is about saving Shakespeare - I feel that there's no one else he could have opened up to as he needed to do, except Shakespeare...

Michele said...

I liked that exchange too, Erin...

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book, read the first time on Michele's recommendation but really enjoyed the re-read too.
I have to admit to never having read Shakespeare or seen one of his plays but after reading this book I now want to!
I think that the way Susan Cooper writes brings both worlds to life in an interesting and informative way. I am sure that young readers will enjoy reading this book and lose themselves in the story as I did.
Just one question, how many books has Susan Cooper written and does our library have all of them?
Great choice of book to set the discussion off Michele.
Lesley

Michele said...

Thanks Lesley! I'm really glad you enjoyed it enough to read it twice - and that it's inspired you to want to see some Shakespeare.

Susan Cooper has written dozens of books - and continues to write them. I've read almost all her children's books (and reviews are on my main Blog). The Oxfordshire library service has most of them on its shelves...

MotherReader said...

I knew nothing about the book going in. I didn't read the inside cover, a review, or anything else. And that's relevant for me, because I was expecting a totally different book. Between the dark, creepy cover Michele showed (mine had the softer, gentler cover) and Michele's Sci-Fic/Fantasy preference, I thought it would be a more heavy and dark fantasy.

But the fantasy element isn't actually in the book very much. It made me wonder at first what was the point of it being a time travel book if eighty percent of the book was going to take place in 1599. Especially since the time Nat spends in 1599 isn't trying to go back to his time or solve a mystery. He's just being and acting in that time.

Later I realized that if it wasn't a time travel book, Nat wouldn't be able to point out the world of 1599 with the eyes of the outsider. So, while it needs to be a time travel book for the outsider perspective, it still seems a lot more like historical fiction.

I've seen the Midsummer Night Dream movie, but I still found all the references to the play a little hard to keep track of. I'm curious how it reads when you don't know it at all. Did anyone else think of the scenes of the play as done in Dead Poet's Society? It may be just me because my cousin played that part in that movie.

I wasn't crazy about the quick resolve ending of the time travel. I wanted more explanation or magic.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I wouldn't put it as one of my favorites, but a fun and interesting read for me.

Sheila said...

To add to what Michele said, the switch also may have saved the 16th century Nathan Field's life, as well; if he hadn't been sent to the future, he may well have died of the plague. So, not only did the switch save Shakespeare, but it possibly saved both Nathan's, in different ways. And who knows how many other people were helped in a ripple effect, by coming into contact with those three people? So, although Arby says that the switch was to save Shakespeare, it's obvious that the reasons were much more complex than that.

Little Willow said...

I wish more details had been shared about his time living with Will himself. The idol worship was obvious (it's Shakespeare! fans would say) and seemed natural, but for kids who have never read his works or have little information about him, some more background might have been nice.

I love stories with a time-travel element - always have, always will - especially when they are meaty. This was a lighter read, and it definitely felt like wish fulfillment rather than a full-fledged action-adventure or a trying to figure out how-do-I-get-back-home? (or EARN-my-way-home) mystery.

Overall, I liked it. I like Shakespeare's works, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is my favorite Shakey comedy, so I enjoyed its inclusion and interpretation.

Michele said...

MotherReader: It's a time-slip book - which means there's little concentration on the SF element of the story (as opposed to a time travel book, which does concentrate more on the SF element). It's a small distinction, but an important one, I think.

I must admit that I did remember Dead Poet's Society, but I think the similarities are superficial. The play is very important to both the central characters (in the film and the book), and they both interact with someone inspirational, but I think that's it, as Nat's a very different character to Neil Perry.

Sheila: You make a good point and one I should have brought up myself !

LittleWillow: I too wanted more of Nat's life with Shakespeare, but I assumed that Cooper left that out for the sake of keeping the story moving...

Little Willow said...

Re-posted my Book Group blurb at my LJ and added my comments from here to expand later. Waiting to post Gardens thoughts 'til next month. Reading SIR THURSDAY today/tomorrow.

MotherReader said...

Oh, I didn't think there was much in the parallel of the stories of Dead Poet Society and King of Shadows. (though it's interesting that there is any). But several of the chosen scenes written about in King are the same (most "famous") scenes that were portrayed in DPS. So, I kept reading the scenes in King and thinking of the scenes as done in DPS. Of course, that may be that I saw that movie dozens of times in my youth.

Michele said...

Great LittleWillow - I'll come and take a look !

MotherReader: that may be it ! I've not seen DPS *that* often (maybe three times in total), that it's fixed quite firmly in my head !

Camille said...

I originally read this book when it came out in 1999. The first thing I noticed was the dedication, "For my actor." I felt like I knew who she meant but of course, never could know for sure until last spring. She was at Tx Library Association meeting and when I had my moment with her, as she signed my books, I asked her if I was correct and she looked at me and very quietly said, "Yes."

I see the novel as a work of love about the theater and to her husband, Hume Cronyn.

Liz B said...

-- I'm torn about the switch. I believed it was one of those time switch stories where things "just happened" -- that somehow both boys paths crossed and boom, switch -- until the realization that Arby is like Mr Highlander guy. I have a much easier time believing in the switch just happening (having read plenty of time slip books) but I'm still scratching my head about Mr Immortal.

-- thought this was a wonderful love story -- the love of theatre and Shakespeare shone thru out. (SC wrote this for her husband, right?)

-- speaking of love -- and I know I'll be alone on this one -- Nat's adoration of Shakespeare was almost too much for me; too much of a crush, much more than a father figure; a little too over the top (I get that SC was making the parallels to Nat's dad, but there was a part of me saying the emotion here is too much.)

-- my favorite Shakespeare book is Master Skylark by John Bennett.

-- I think as a kid, I would have loved King of Shadows; its the grown up in me that wonders about Arby's longevity & the exact aspects of Nat's crush

-- I loved the history part. I think sometimes that historical fiction can best be told thru straight forward time travel books, because then there is the perfect excuse to have modern bias and observations. Like how Nat noticed the smells etc; someone of the time wouldn't mention it

-- I want to spend my entire weekend watching Shakespeare plays or movies with Shakespeare in them

Michele said...

Camille, I knew you'd mention the dedication - and I see Liz B. did too...

It's interesting that so many of you are commenting on Nat's "crush" on Shakespeare...

Anonymous said...

Don't you think that Nat's 'crush' is a normal childs thing? Most children get this feeling at some point, either for a teacher, a pop singer or a sports star. I think that as Nat is an actor in Shakesperian plays he is an ideal canditate for meeting Shakespeare and developing this 'crush'.
Lesley

Michele said...

Actually, Lesley, I do see it as a normal child's thing, which is why I'm slightly puzzled by people's dislike or feeling that it's over the top...

I know I had crushes as a child, and they were pretty intense...

Liz B said...

Did anyone see this article with an interview with S Cooper: From the Grail to the Globe. http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/childrenandteens/0,,125318,00.html

and this from her website: http://www.thelostland.com/kosbook.htm (only a few lines, but still interesting!)

the wikipedia entry for nathaniel field: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Field

from the globe website: http://www.globe-theatre.org.uk/nathan-field-actor.htm

I find it very interesting that SC decided to use a "real" person for the switch.

Michele said...

I had seen the bit from the "Lost Lands" site, and I had looked up the real Nat Field via Google, but the Guardian article was new to me, so thank you for sharing !

Elaine Magliaro said...

One of the things I liked most about KING OF SHADOWS is the way Susan Cooper transports readers back to Elizabethan England. I am talking here about the aspects of everyday life--especially the sights and sounds and smells of the city--that she includes in the text. She brought ME back in time.
As I read the book, I almost felt I was there as an invisible observer.

Books like this are wonderful vehicles for providing young people with a sense of specific historical periods--and for helping those times come alive for them. Textbooks aren't the only way to teach history.

Michele said...

Exactly ! That's why I enjoy reading novels with an historical bent...

(And explains why I'm writing a story with an historical bent, as well !)