Three different kinds of epics

Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Luo Guanzhong – 2000/3000 pages approx.
One of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature. It’s a huge book but as for every chinese classic it’s quite hard to figure out the best version to get. All books available in english seem to be abridged in a way or another, and also quite expensive. On Amazon I tracked two fine-looking versions. The first (C. H. Brewitt-Taylor) is the one in the picture above and easier to get from various places. Two volumes of 600-700 pages each. The other version (Moss Roberts) is divided into four volumes, declared unabridged and more faithful to the original, while the first seems to have a more beautiful prose. You can compare the two directly since Amazon has the “look inside” option for both (but the latter is taken from the abridged version). My choice would be on the four volumes version, also because even the abridged version seems more easy to follow and less obscure. (an unabridged version is also available for Kindle)

Comments from wiki or reviews:

A grand total of 800,000 words, nearly a thousand characters, and 120 chapters.

Myths from the Three Kingdoms era existed as oral traditions before any written compilations. In these popular stories, the characters typically took on exaggerated characteristics, often becoming immortals or supernatural beings with magical powers.

how power is wielded, how diplomacy is conducted, and how wars are planned and fought.

Three Kingdoms takes place amid a time of disorder in the Chinese Empire caused by the weakening of the throne and the Yellow Scarves rebellion. It focuses on the interactions betweent the various warlords. The Yellow Scarves who are losing influence at the time are mostly a background “random events” threat that serves the function that the Reivers do in Serenity.
Three Kingdoms is curious among the epics I am familiar with because of the emphasis on cunning. Reading it is very much like watching a chess game being played out and the book is full of that style of mysticism of strategy that seems unique to China. In fact that is why I got it; I was seeking just that sort of thing.
For that reason it will be different from more familiar epics. It has labyrinthine cloak and dagger, and treachery, described in a strange style. It is one of the most elaborate tales of intrigue ever written.

Jin Ping Mei – Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng – 3000 pages approx.
Or Chin P’ing Mei. This is the fifth of the four great chinese novels:

It is the first full-length Chinese fictional work to depict sexuality in a graphically explicit manner

The novel describes, in great detail, the downfall of the Ximen household during the years 1111-1127 (during the Northern Song Dynasty). The story centres around Ximen Qing 西門慶, a corrupt social climber and lustful merchant who is wealthy enough to marry a consort of wives and concubines.

Reputed to be the most extensive and notorious work of pornography in world literature, the Chin P’ing Mei is actually far more than that: with its grasp of human psychology and mastery of complex narrative forms, its author probably created the world’s first realist novel.

Now this is even harder to find in an unabridged version. I actually had an italian copy I bought years ago and tried to compare with a few versions online: it doesn’t even seem the same book. It’s not a matter of translation, but totally different story and characters. This version I have is about 900 pages and is even “extended” over the first, ad I think based on the translation of Arthur Waley whose other book/translation (The Tale of Genji) was considered beautiful in style but also lacking faithfulness to the original and even missing one chapter. There’s only one version (The Plum in the Golden Vase) in english that is completely unabridged and faithful, the only big problem is that the professor who was working on this project planned five volumes (600+ pages each) but was only able to finish three before his death. So the only decent translation available in the western world is incomplete.

From what I remember of my italian version it was quite a fun read because of the characters and libertine, unrestrained behaviors. Easily readable and compelling. The few sexual scenes were also tamer than anyone would expect, at least in that version. There wasn’t anything really “explicit” and when things were described they were only done through allusions and fancy, poetic metaphors with flowers, fishes and springs. I’d really like to buy the english version and compare it with the one I have, but the three volumes aren’t exactly cheap and the incompleteness just adds to the disappointment. This would be a great story to read.

Arcana Coelestia – Emanuel Swedenborg – 4000 pages approx.
Many years ago I was reading all sort of weird stuff. But really weird and all over the place. From magic, to myths, literature. Esotericism mixed with science, like The Morning of the Magicians. Not that I believed in that stuff, but I’ve always been curious. Along the path I started to read the Inferno by August Strindberg. That was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Like a victorian/gothic tale written by E.A. Poe or Lovercraft, but a real story in this case. An autobiography/diary of a writer gone mad, paranoid, hallucinated, obsessed with coincidences, occultism and alchemy. It’s one of those books you can’t stop reading once you start, written splendidly and fascinating (besides, there was an implicit intrigues between Strindberg himself, his lover, one friend and Edvard Munch, a fine group). In this book Strindberg wrote how the Arcana Coelestia by Swedenborg changed his life and gave an explanation to all his obsessions. Swedenborg also had strong influences on Goethe, Balzac, William Blake, Baudelaire, Borges, Kant, Martin Luther King and, in particular, Carl Jung. So I went and tried to order the book, and continued trying for a couple of years. Now I understand why I was never able to find a version. The published book is more that 4000 pages, the only printed edition I was able to find is divided into 12 volumes. But it is also available for free online.

There are a lot of resources online about Swedenborg, but they look rather close to stuff like scientology. The Arcana Coelestia is a monumental book where he explain the first book of the old testament, the Genesis. He says that it shouldn’t be read in its literal sense, but in its symbolic sense. That’s why Jung was influenced by his works. Modern psychology has moved through five stages that I don’t remember exactly. But it moved from the basic sense of a dream, to Freudian interpretation, to a deeper symbolic one (Jung) and then an even deeper level (Hillman, whose “The Dream and the Underworld” I heartily recommend) called archetypal psychology where dreams go back to the archetypes coming right from Greek mythology. The deeper you dig, the farther you go. There are similarities with Swedenborg as he interprets the bible like Hillman would interpret a dream. Swedenborg also claimed that he was able to talk directly with god and various angles for many years and that all he wrote was exactly what was being told to him. Something like Dante’s Divine Comedy, but pretending it wasn’t in any way fictional. He also wrote a book where he explains the apocalypse (1200 pages, enjoy), again in its symbolic meaning and purpose.

Whether you believe, or even doubt, about the relevance of all this, at least it is intriguing and may have a deeper sense if read from the point of view of Hillman and Jung (so through critical thinking and not taken as dogma).

Swedenborg shows that the Bible has a external or natural sense (the stories) and an internal or spiritual sense (the inner meaning). The spiritual sense of the Books of Genesis and Exodus teaches of the development of the human mind and the regeneration of humans.

The truly astounding thing to me about the Arcana Coelestia is that it tells about the life of Christ–His inner temptations and growth–things we don’t learn about in the Bible. So while it gives new light to the Old Testament, it also adds to the New Testament and knowledge about Christ.

I spent years researching the five major religions and have read all of their main sacred texts, yet I never seemed to find clear answers to my questions or an explanation to the frustrating contradictions between common religious beliefs. Heaven and Hell put all that frustration to rest. This magnificent work presents a coherent theological model in which all major religions find a place and answers all questions people typically have about faith such as: why religions sometimes contradict; why people in various cultures developed a belief in reincarnation; the cause of gender and sexual love; what the concept of “eternity” truly means; why evil is permitted in this realm and so on. Swedenborg was the most powerful psychic in known history, someone whose work cannot be ignored by any serious student of religion or philosophy.

Swedenborg wrote over 30 volumes of work, so figuring out where to dive into this ocean of material can be confusing. “Heaven and Hell” is a great place to start. Have you ever wondered about what Heaven looks like or what goes on there? If you have ever been curious about Angels and what they spend their time doing, you will have all these questions and more answered in this detailed account. Did God create hell so there would be a place to send sinners to be punished? Swedenborg says, “No.” God does not punish or judge anyone. God is pure love and incapable of even frowning in our direction. Want to know who created hell and who goes there? You have to buy the book….

These recent English translations are a very interesting read for the “open minded”. Swedenborg’s matter-of-factly presentations of what he says he saw and heard is expressed so honestly, the reader is left with much to ponder on many “other worldly” topics. The author appears to truly believe the experiences he relates, and passes descriptions along to us in vivid detail, almost to a fault.

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