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April 1, 2016

A is for April Fools, Douglas Adams and Sending the Fool Further #AtoZChallenge

by Chris



If we open with a bit of mental arithmetic, it turns out that you can take the days of April this year, subtract the number of Sundays, and be left with the number of letters in the English language (so far). This is useful, because if we included those Sundays we’d have to invent a couple of extra letters for Girl Who Reads’ April A-Z challenge, and although my fictional language does contain some of those extra letters, then we’d all have to read the articles and reviews something like this:

Ye na lièth theeté Erâtheet.

I actually thought of writing this entire article in this made-up language, which would have been a fantastic April Fools’ joke, expect the joke likely would have been on me since I doubt I’d be writing for Girl Who Reads much longer.

However, I can’t just ignore the fact that the first Friday of April also happens to be the first day of April, which happens to be my day for the month here. Therefore, I’d like to take the opportunity to copy and paste my senior dissertation on compositional techniques and harmonic modalities in heavy metal music throughout the late twentieth century. Enjoy!


The Month of April

Just kidding. I actually wanted to talk about something far more boring: the actual month of April. Other than traditional holding it as the rainy month (April showers bring May flowers), April doesn’t have a whole lot of special events to offer from a calendar perspective other than paying taxes (in the US, at least). Even Easter abandoned April this year. However, there is some interesting history behind the month. (Should such things be of interest to you. If not, skip ahead a few sections where I talk about funny books.)

The Romans came up with April (like most of our calendar), calling it Aprilis. Unlike July, which good old Julius named after himself, it’s a little unclear where this name came from. Wikipedia notes the rather tenuous link that the Romans worshipped Venus on the first of April (being the second month of the Roman calendar), and that the Greek equivalent of Venus was Aphrodite, and that Aprilis might have actually been Aphrilis, which starts with the same four letters as Aphrodite, and so the Romans decided that was somehow more sensible than just naming the month after Venus in the first place. Imagine if the months went January, February, March, Venuary, May? Especially if Mars was in retrograde at the time.

For what it’s worth, Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) just made up a god for April. Makes sense.

Anyway, the point is that before it became wet and miserable, April was a month of festivities, especially in relation to fertility (oh, those dirty Romans). Before global warming, we used to have flowers and such bloom in April, which I guess the Romans thought was neat because their word for ‘open’ was aperire, which also sounds like April, so maybe the whole thing was just a word for the opening of the year. I wonder if they had cold winters in ancient Rome.

The Romans celebrated lots of things, of course, but sex and fertility was kind of a big thing back then (actually, I suppose that hasn’t changed much), and it was probably a lot of fun to dedicate an entire month to sensuality and desire. In fact, the name ‘Venus’ can be literally translated as ‘sex’ in Latin. Interestingly, one of the first temples to Venus was supposedly paid for by women who had performed sexual ‘misdemeanors’, which maybe meant having affairs, or maybe just having sex in the first place. I’m guessing they could have built a much bigger temple if the men had been fined.

Where the Fools Began

The first of April was a big deal to the Romans in particular, the Veneralia being honored on that day—something to do with Venus changing the hearts of men and women, and also about manliness and being a man. They would take a statue of Venus from the temple to the mens’ baths, undress it and have (probably naked) women wash it, before (even weirder) asking it questions about who they should sleep with and who they should marry.

Now the origins of the first of April being a day for jokes and pranks date to much later than this, although it seems to me that washing a naked statue and asking it sex advice is some kind of a joke of empirical proportions. Not that the Romans needed an excuse to cavort; just before April they’d celebrate something called Hilaria (sounds good, right?) about winter ending and the days getting longer.

Chaucer wrote a funny story set around the time of April 1—something about a rooster and a fox that trick each other. It’s not clear to me what it was important that this story take place at a specific time of year, though I’m no Chaucer scholar; still, in it a rooster dreams of a fox coming to kill him, just like it did his parents. You’d think this would be enough to give the rooster a reason to stay away from foxes, but he ends up talking to one anyway. The fox says he’d love to see him crow, and of course when he stretches his neck out the fox grabs him. Funnily the rooster doesn’t die at this point, and returns the joke by suggesting the fox tell their pursuers to give up. When he does, the rooster escapes, and rather disappointingly nobody gets eaten.

Now this was back in the fourteenth century. A few hundred years later, the tradition of trickery seemed to be growing strong, with Flemish nobles sending their servants on fool’s errands (literally), and silly British peasants being told they could see lions at the Tower of London (where, I assume, they were locked up or more likely fed to lions).

And so on, until today it’s practically a given that at some point, somebody’s going to prank you on April 1. There are some funny traditions across the world; perhaps my favorite is in Scotland, where it was once called Huntigowk Day, where they would literally hunt gowks, or foolish people. This conjures wonderful images of yearly cultural cleansing, where the most idiotic of Scots would be done away with, possibly by suffocating them with a bagpipe.

In Ireland, you might find yourself given an ‘important’ letter, to be passed on to a friend. That friend would need to pass it on, and so on and so forth, until finally someone would open it only to find the letter says, “Send the fool further.” It makes me wonder who the real fool is—the one who opens it, or the one who passes it on? And how much further should that fool go?


My Favorite Fool

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Of course, this wouldn’t be Girl Who Reads if we didn’t talk about books (other than Canterbury Tales), and so of course I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce my favorite fool, whose name also starts with A, and who was created by an author whose name starts with A, although none of his books do, so the more fool I.

Arthur Dent is the rather reluctant hero of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels, radio plays and movies (each with its own varying levels of success). I personally prefer the books, because although they are self-referential and outright contradict much of the other material, they are also long, and so contain a lot of (again, contradictory) details that are otherwise missed out on in the other mediums in which Arthur Dent appears.

One of the nice things about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that it starts on a Thursday, which is a perfectly acceptable day for April Fools’ Day, should one choose to interpret it so. Personally I think it would make sense, given all else, that the earth be destroyed on April 1, and on a Thursday (clearly not this year, but perhaps in 2021, which gives you about five years to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if you haven’t already).

Poor Arthur Dent. Kidnapped from earth moments before it’s destroyed, he ends up being involved in the search for (and actually being) the question to the answer to life, the universe and everything. Throughout the series he is depicted as the most unfortunate of fools, a series of catastrophic and inexplicable events (such as earth blowing up and the spaceship turning into a duck) leading him from one side of the universe to the other, all without a change of clothes or even a fresh towel. The nicest thing one could say about Arthur Dent is that he’s adaptable (to an extent); when asked by a cow which part if it he’d like to eat, he manages to calmly ask for a salad instead (the vegetables are less than thrilled, however). In a way he makes me think of Philip J. Fry from Futurama, who is equally foolish and adaptable to the most bizarre of circumstances.

Douglas Adams does a simply brilliant job throughout the series of portraying what, honestly, the average human being (or British human being, at least) would do faced with unimaginable technology and creatures. One of my favorite bits is where Arthur and Ford get stranded on prehistoric earth, and Arthur is actually better able to cope with the utter lack of technology than his celestially advanced counterpart. I suppose there’s something in that to be said for not keeping technology too close to us—go camping and make a fire, sometimes. It can’t hurt.


Sending the Fool Further

Of course, towards the end it all gets a little depressing; Arthur falls in love and loses her, and then the earth gets destroyed again, only this time he doesn’t escape it, and the Vogons build their super space highway. I heard someone wrote a sixth book, but I’d rather not read it; not that Adams necessarily meant to end the Hitchhiker saga on such a low note (the poor thing died at 49), but I don’t really think it was for anyone else to pick it up.

And so, in this sense, despite the depressing ending, Adams was able to do what all great novelists have done: send his fool further. This is often difficult for us writers to do, because we don’t like to make people angry, or upset, or hurt. (I’m not talking about real people, mind you, but our characters.) It’s very difficult for me to put my characters into a situation where they’re likely to get hurt, or maimed, or die. I don’t feel like a good person when I do that. But of course, it’s necessary. No good story ever came from Jack and Jill going up the hill and coming home with a full bucket. What’s the point? Doesn’t that happen every day? Tell me about something that isn’t everyday. Tell me about worlds being destroyed, and moping androids, and crazy witches in caves. And make it hurt, because when I hurt, I feel better about my own life. So glad I didn’t get kidnapped by Vogons!

Perhaps my favorite bit of all of the Hitchhiker series is when poor Arthur, lovesick and forlorn, goes to a prophet for advice. And after many trials and tribulations, her advice (spectacularly) is to read through every decision she’d ever made in her life, and do the exact opposite: so as not to end up in a smelly old cave like her.

Isn’t that good advice for all of us poor fools out here? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked for advice, and all I really wanted to say was, “Do what I didn’t.” Or, perhaps more realistically, “Don’t do what I did.”

Adams sends his fool past the comfort zone, well out into the stratosphere of unpleasantness, and eventually beyond the point of no return. And I think there’s a lesson for all of us therein—whether as fiction writers, or just people in general. You’ll never experience anything spectacular by playing it safe. And what’s worse, you might find yourself at the end of your life in a smelly old cave, or on a planet destined for destruction, with no recourse and no way back, regretting every decision you didn’t make.

So what am I trying to say? I suppose, if anything, it is this: regrets are destined to happen, and given this fact, it’s better to regret your actions than your inactions. I’d rather feel bad for doing something, than wonder what would have happened for the rest of my life.

I don’t know if this is a particularly healthy outlook, but at the end of the day we all have to make it through life one way or another. So go read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, prank someone today, and worship Roman sex gods.

Or don’t listen to me, and go do whatever you want. Either way, just don’t regret it.


Chris: features writer. Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgement that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com

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29 comments:

  1. Oh, I love, love, love Douglas Adams! Read all of his books years ago - some of them more than once.

    I'm also a writer. #1628 on the A to Z Challenge. Thesaurus Tyrannosaurus. Next time, I'm going to choose a theme that's easier to spell.

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    1. Douglas Adams is one of my favorite comic writers. I only wish he'd lived longer - I'd've loved to read more about Dirk Gently! I hear they're making a movie out of it! And good luck on Thesaurus Tyrannosaurus (if I spelled it correctly)!

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  2. Your sense of humor comes through loud and strong. I'm glad I stopped by. I think this A-Z Challenge is going to be a good one. Enjoy! Denise at Randomocity.
    http://denisebennorth.blogspot.com/

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    1. Thank you, Denise! I'm looking forward to what the rest of GWRs bloggers come up with!

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  3. I love Douglas Adams, and Arthur Dent, and now want to abandon my current book to reread it (HGTG is probably a lot more appropriate for today than Salman Rushdie).

    (I'm another A-Z Challenger, but my "A" post is not nearly as fun as yours!)

    http://beeandress.wordpress.com

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    1. I could read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy over and over again! I checked out your A-Z challenge - I liked your poem for 'A'. I like the idea of using a prompt as the starting point for an article or poem.

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  4. I don't know...I think I'd really like to read that dissertation on compositional techniques and harmonic modalities in heavy metal music throughout the late twentieth century.

    But this post was nice, too. :) Looking forward to visiting again!

    MJ
    My Pet Blog

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    1. Ha! I actually made that title up. I did, however, write heavy metal music for my compositional dissertation in college, and did a lot of research into the compositional techniques involved. Thank you for reading!

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  5. Chris - great start for the A - Z challenge. Loved your post. You've set the bar pretty high for the rest of us who are participating in the challenge.

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    1. Thanks, Susan - I appreciate the vote of confidence! We'll see how it compares by the end of the month!

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  6. "Better to regret your actions than your your inactions..." Got to agree with you there, especially if I want to follow Douglas Adams' notes on how to leave the planet.

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    1. Thank you! It's something that actually applies very much to my personal life at the moment. And sometimes I wish I could follow Adams' advice and actually leave the planet!

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  7. Ah, fools. My favorite fool is Jonathan Harker from Dracula. He is the prototype for the modern sensitive male - sweet, courageous and dim-witted. Yet eventually, he rises to the occasion. Great post.

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    1. You know, Dracula never even entered my mind when writing this, but you're absolutely right! Jonathan Harker is honestly nothing special at all - especially when compared to the competence of Van Helsing. But yes - he absolutely rises to the occasion when it comes down to it. Of course, thinking on older literature I'm now thinking of Voltaire's Candide, who tries to be an optimist in the worst of possible circumstances!

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  8. I 'grew up' with The Hitchhikers Guide... as a radio show. I taped it and listened to it many times. I can still quote the Vogon poetry (although only in the German translation).
    Great post!

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    1. Do you know, I've still never listened to the original radio series. I really ought to, now that I think about it. Oh freddled gruntbuggly … !

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  9. Your posts are always so compelling and interesting, Donna, kudos to you!
    My fav fool is Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter. He's so nonsense, yet he's able to make very good points. I am referring to the book Mad Hatter, not the Disney cartoon's :)

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    1. Sometimes I wonder if the best points are nonsense, and nonsense makes the best points. Hm. I wonder if that was a good point.

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    2. You would be an ace Mad Hatter! :D

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  10. Now I know who to thank for April Fools. The Romans were real pranksters.

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    1. Oh, those silly Romans. Somehow they died out, but their confusing customs lived on.

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  11. Interesting stuff on April and April fools!

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  12. Always love a good April history rundown!

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    1. Next month, I'll do the history of … September.

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  13. This was a fascinating column - I loved the April history, the Chaucer tie-in, and the way we ended with Douglas Adams. Excellent!

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    1. Thank you, Alison! I was actually kind of stuck for what to write about, but I find sometimes odd histories (such as the origins of a name) can be fascinating.

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  14. That was a great post, thank you!

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