Friday, July 7, 2017

Book Review: The Lance of Kanana

Title: The Lance of Kanana

(That's the original cover drawing; the Amazon page for first editions that look like this shows high prices. Reprints with different covers, and used copies posted on Amazon without pictures, are cheaper, and unless you insist on a first edition you'll get a reprint.)

Author: Harry W. French

Date: 1892 (D. Lothrop), 1963 (Lothrop Lee & Shepard)

Publisher: Lothrop

ISBN: none

Length: 165 pages

Quote: “Kanana...never held a lance in his hand but once; yet...they say...that it rescued Arabia.”

Someone gave me a reprint of the “hero tale” an American spun out of an old legend, when I was five years old. Here I stand to testify that, though too young to understand the story very well and not interested in stories about young men and battles, I found it a good enough story that I was interested in going back and reading Harry French’s whole book as an adult. It's not considered to be Real History, but it is considered to be Culturally Important.

In French’s story, Kanana is a pacifist, sort of a proto-Humanist or even a proto-Progressive; he’s smart and tough, and doesn’t want to waste his talents on fighting and raiding. As a result he’s considered a bit feeble-minded, kept at tasks usually done by those unfit to do a grown man’s or woman’s work. When word reaches his tribe that a party from another tribe have kidnapped his older brother and the family’s best camel, Kanana’s father doesn’t even want to waste a horse on the dreary errand of sending Kanana out to perish in the desert.

Kanana is, however, much smarter than his older brother; and his voice is changing. He’s also a kindhearted child who pauses to give water to a dying soldier, who gives him a message to take to Mecca. At first Kanana thinks this extra errand will distract him from his own business. Instead it gets him another paramilitary assignment to carry out for his country, in the course of which he plays a splendid prank that puts that brother into his place. Kanana’s second mission of service to his country is rewarded with a third mission that leads him into battle.

If he throws the lance and kills an Arab, the enemy will release his father from prison; if he refuses, the enemy will kill his father. Kanana throws the lance, and he kills an Arab, but not in the way the enemy had in mind...

It’s not fashionable at the moment to remember that, during Europe’s Dark Ages, Humanist values like compassion, appreciation of beauty, family love, romantic love, and respect for intelligence, were being kept alive by Muslims...but in historical fact they were. Many Arabs were, and many Europeans were, basically gangsters who lived by fighting and stealing from other people. (In a story from Ireland at this period, somebody insults one of the chieftains by accusing him of raising cattle, to which the haughty chieftain replies, “I never worked a day in my life! Every one of these cattle was taken in a raid!” Yes, and the leaders of other European and North African tribes shared this thug’s sense of values.) Arabs also, however, loved the kind of story where somebody overcomes a disadvantage by cleverness, and that’s what Kanana does throughout this little book.

This kind of story does not have parallels in contemporary Europe. Some European folk tales about clever characters may have been told during the Arabian Caliphate period, but in what was written down, although much is said about Beowulf’s or Roland’s or Boris’s strength and courage and patriotism and even their religion, little attention is given to their intelligence. There’s more of a suggestion that, if you’re a Great Man in the sense that Arthur or El Cid was one, you don’t need much abstract intelligence. Arabia was where, although of course lots of people were neither mighty warriors nor shrewd thinkers, people at least admired both of those qualities equally...

One reason why the popularity of this book waned is that, although it was obviously written from research, the information available to Harry French is questionable; if it wasn’t misleading, I'd like to know where he got it. The Arabic expressions...French had learned only one Muslim prayer, and he has characters saying “La ilaha ill’Allah” when we’d expect them to say “Bismillah” or “Inshallah” or another of the prayer-words contemporary Muslims use, not that. The ways people pray (and swear) change over time but I suspect French would have done better, since he wrote in English anyway, to let his characters use the appropriate English prayer phrase, rather than using Arab prayer phrases in ways that, even if (for all I know) they reflect historical research, sound wrong to readers who have listened to modern Muslims talking.

At what age are children likely to enjoy The Lance of Kanana? Take it from a former child prodigy: even if a five-year-old can read all the words (which most can’t), five is too young. A blurb on the wrapper of the 1963 reprint suggests “boys age twelve and over.” Today’s overly sophisticated, prematurely cynical teenagers might not care for a hero tale, and since Kanana is a thinker rather than a bully girls are about as likely to appreciate him as boys are. Nine to twelve would be my first guess but, of course, what children like depends on the individual child.

As noted above, first editions of The Lance of Kanana, with the original cover in its original bright colors, are definitely collectors' items by now. Old copies in which the colors have faded out of the cover, or reprints with different covers, are cheap and plentiful, and since French no longer needs ten percent of the price you'd pay for a Fair Trade Book, this web site will work with the probability that you'd rather pay $5 for a reprint or a faded copy. In that case, send $5 per book, $5 per package (you could fit at least four copies of this little book, and probably eight, into a package), and $1 per online payment, to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen. (When ordering books as a package you can order as many different titles as we can squeeze into the one package.)