Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I am always happiest when I am learning about new things. Well, I am now tempted to backtrack and say I'm really happiest when I'm reading, but in today's particular case both statements are true and really about the same thing.

Back in mid-October I posted on the blog about my delight in reading Jose Saramago's book "The Elephant's Journey." Today I discovered a book discussion group on that has set aside November for discussing this book, and of course I immediately joined the group.

Here's a disclaimer: I am always just a reader and a watcher in any book discussion groups. I am a real "dodo" when it comes to understanding all the ins and outs of novels. I am always shocked and surprised that there is so much more to the book than what I read, and rather than humiliate myself by being outed as such a shallow reader, I simply read or listen to others as they discuss the book. I learn a whole lot that way.

Anyway, already the discussion in this online group has been SO eye-opening for me that I can hardly contain myself. So I want to share some of it with you, in case you decide to read this book too.

First as to "white elephant." The elephant in this book is not white. But have you ever wondered where the term "white elephant" came from?

Wikipedia said this about white elephants: A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance

One of the participants in this discussion had this to say:
"Elephants disappeared from Europe after the Roman Empire. As exotic and expensive animals, they were exchanged as presents between European rulers, who exhibited them as luxury pets, beginning with Harun ar-Rashid's gift of an elephant to Charlemagne."
She noted this came from The History of Elephants in Europe.

In The Elephant's Journey, King Joao is giving this elephant to his relative Archduke Maximilian of Austria - and I learned that this giving of an elephant, white or otherwise, was not unusual.

But I learned more than that. The King's wife is not happy about giving the elephant away, although the writer lets us know that she had not been very concerned previously about the elephant. In fact, she tries to convince the King that he might consider giving a monstrance as a gift.

I read this and never batted my eye at this word that I didn't know the meaning of. Did I stop and look it up? No, like a dodo I read right over and past it. What did I miss? This, according to one of the participants.

...monstrance comes from the latin - "monstrare" - meaning "to show." Monstrances were often used to carry the host in processions.

While we were in Toledo, Spain, we saw a real monster of a monstrance! Toledo was the capital city of Spain until the 16th century, when the capitol was moved to Madrid, but Toledo remains the seat of the Catholic church in Spain - what is called the archdiocese.

Here we saw so much of the "treasure" from the 13th to the 16th century, by the time we saw the monstrance we had reached that state where we were no longer overwhelmed or over-impressed with what we were looking at. Like looking at the treasures of the Louvre for too many hours.

But the Great Monstrance of Arfe! This thing is 9 feet tall! Enrique Arfe sculpted it in the early 16th c. - originally in silver and then plated in gold! I have to believe that Saramago was aware of this Spanish would have been a splendid gift to any monarch, don't you think?

The author probably was not imagining this very gift, but it was obvious that he intended his queenly character to be thinking of something more than a little bit ordinary.

So today, in addition to being reminded once again of my terrible inadequacity in understanding what I read, I've already learned enough to have my tongue hanging out and panting for more, more, more.

Unfortunately I do not still have the book in my hands, so I can't follow along in the reading. But that's not going to stop me from learning.

And the funniest thing is that since reading all this today, I've wandered about my house looking for white elephants. Mine, probably like yours, are the kinds of things shown in the picture at the top of the blog. No hay, no special food and no cleanup necessary.

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