Sep. 21, 2006

Apology to the Wasps

by Sara Littlecrow-Russell

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Poem: "Apology to the Wasps" by Sara Littlecrow-Russell from The Secret Powers of Naming. © The University of Arizona Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Apology to the Wasps

Terrorized by your stings,
I took out biochemical weapons
And blasted your nest
Like it was a third world country.

I was the United States Air Force.
It felt good to be so powerful
Until I saw your family
Trailing shredded wings,
Staggering on disintegrating legs,
Trying desperately to save the eggs
You had stung to protect.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is an important day in the history of three related genres of literature: science fiction, horror, and fantasy. It's the birthday of the science-fiction novelist H.G. Wells, the horror novelist Stephen King, and it was on this day in 1937 that J.R.R. Tolkien published his first novel, The Hobbit.

Tolkien (books by this aurthor) was working as a professor at Oxford, where he specialized in ancient European languages, including classical Greek and Latin, Old Norse, Old English, medieval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon, and an ancient form of German called Gothic. He was especially interested in Northern European mythology. He had begun thinking about the fact that there were almost no native English fairytales, and it occurred to him that he might be able to use his knowledge of mythology to create something new.

At the time, he was supplementing his income as a professor by grading examinations in the summers. He later referred to the job as "agony." He spent hours poring over terribly written essays. And it was in the middle of one of these sessions, in the summer of 1928, going through a stack of papers, when he said, "One of the candidates mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it—which is possibly the best thing that can happen to an examiner—and I wrote on it, "In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit."

Tolkien later said that he had no idea where the word "hobbit" came from. It had just popped into his head, out of nowhere. He was intrigued by it and decided to write a story to find out what a hobbit might be. In the story that resulted, he wrote a description of hobbits that said, in part, "[Hobbits] are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. ... They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow naturally leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it)."

Tolkien had been thinking for years about an imaginary place he called Middle-Earth full of dwarves, elves, and wizards. He decided that his story would concern a hobbit in this world named Bilbo Baggins who goes on an adventure to help steal a treasure from a dragon named Smaug, and along the way discovers a magical ring that turns him invisible. Tolkien wrote the book by hand, sitting on a tiny bed in his attic, finishing it sometime around the mid-1930s.

He showed it to a few friends, but he had no intention of publishing it until a former student of his got a job at a publishing house and began pestering him to give her the manuscript. He finally relented, and it came out on this day in 1937.

The novelist H.G. (Herbert George) Wells, (books by this author) was born on this day in Bromley, England (1866). After college, he got married, got a job writing biology textbooks, and settled down for a few years. But when he developed a respiratory illness in his late 20s, he thought he didn't have many years to live, so he left his wife, ran away with another woman, and began writing furiously. Between 1895 and 1898, he published all of the novels for which he is best remembered: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).

The novelist Stephen King (books by this author) was born on this day in Portland, Maine (1947). His father, a merchant seaman, deserted the family when King was two. He has no memories of the man, but one day he found a boxful of his father's science-fiction and fantasy paperbacks, including an anthology of stories from Weird Tales magazine and a book by horror author H. P. Lovecraft. That box of his father's books inspired him to start writing horror stories. His first novel was Carrie (1973).

He went on to become one of the most popular novelists of all time. Before him, most horror novels took place in drafty old mansions and castles. His horror novels take place in ordinary American small towns, at fast food restaurants, local libraries, and little-league baseball games.

It's the birthday of publisher Sir Allen Lane, born Allen Williams in Bristol, England (1902). He came up with the idea of publishing high-quality literature in paperback form, and that was the beginning of Penguin Books.

It's the birthday of novelist Fannie Flagg (books by this author) born Patricia Neal in Birmingham, Alabama (1941). She's best known as the author of the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987).

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