When arcs come crashing down

sansaWhen a book becomes a movie or a TV show, you can expect some changes. These might be minor, like the exclusion of Ioreth or Glorfindel from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, or huge sweeping changes involving new characters and the introduction of old ones in places they weren’t supposed to be. For the most part, I take these changes in stride. I understand the appeal of inserting Legolas into the Hobbit movies, for instance, because he forms a very obvious connection for fans of the previous trilogy, and even the Dwarf-Elf love story didn’t bother me very much.

For the same reason, changes the show runners have made in A Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books, have not annoyed me. Until now.

Please note, there are massive spoilers both for the books and the TV show, going ahead.

That last episode has been the focus of a LOT of discussion. Sansa Stark is married off to Ramsay Bolton, easily the most vile and disgusting character in the Seven Kingdoms, and is raped on her wedding night while Theon is forced to watch. To their credit, the show runners shot the scene with Theon as the focus, instead of exploiting Sansa’s pain any further by zooming in on what was happening to her. But in some ways, this just served to make the emotional nadir point even more obvious. Theon, a character who has been through more torture than any other on the show, breaks down watching what’s happening before him.

What bothered me about it

Aside from the obvious fact that this storyline—Sansa getting married to Ramsay—is a HUGE change from what’s going down in the books, aside from the fact that it seems needless to include yet another rape scene in a show that seems to harbour more than a few of them (one is too many by this point), aside from the fact that watching it or listening to it made me feel sick and disgusted and terrified, there are very reader-specific reasons why this scene annoyed me.

First off—I love Theon and Sansa both. They are and always have been among my theonfavourite characters (numbering favourites one and two, if you want to be specific) and I supported them long before and in spite of derision and shock from friends and fellow readers/viewers. I found both to have been drawn with incredible realism, being perhaps the most relateable characters in the books. These are the people who many of us, I think, would be in Westeros, characters who make mistakes and learn hard lessons. They are not heroes from the start, but they do grow to be.

In the books Theon is where he’s at in the show, serving Ramsay and playing terrorised/reluctant rescuer to Jeyne Pool, the girl who is masqueraded as Arya Stark and married to the Bastard of Bolton. Theon spends most of A Dance with Dragons coming to terms with his identity as Theon Greyjoy and all that he has done; he seeks to redeem himself, slightly, by rescuing the girl, a fellow sufferer. The point of the whole spiel is that Theon does this simply because he feels for the girl and desires to find some goodness in himself. Rescuing Jeyne wins him no favours from other houses, she does not have powerful allies they can run to—in fact, throwing his lot in with hers is pretty much the most suicidal thing Theon can do, and yet he does it.

Rescuing Sansa Stark, on the other hand, could be seen as a much more loaded act. She has powerful allies out there, and she is the Stark girl at the end of the day. No one who associates with her can forget this, not even a woebegone, maimed and castrated one-time foster brother. The selflessness and danger of Theon’s rescue mission becomes a lot more muddled when the girl he rescues is the heir to the North, as far as most people know.

sansa two

But the real reason I’m pissed is not so much for Theon’s sake as Sansa’s. I wrote a post a while ago, trying to show the haters why I love this character so much, why she appeals to me and why I do not, repeat, DO NOT find her stupid. What I love about Sansa is the way she manages to cling to some form of idealism in a world that steadily seeks to strip her of all of it. Sansa is learning the ropes of manipulation and deceit from Littlefinger in the Eyrie—where she still is in the books—but you never get the sense that she’s become cynical because of what she’s seen. She is merely picking up the tools she needs to survive, but that glimmer of hope for a better world and the life she dreamt of is still there.

Sansa is something of an icon for me in that gritty world of Westeros. she is not perfect, like the mythical Lyanna Stark. She is not super powered, like Dany or Melisandre, and nor is she as embittered and hate-filled as her sister and Cersei. I find it amazing how time and again she is faced with utter humiliation and yet emerges from it. And now, instead of constantly being rescued by men (or, let’s be honest, only by Petyr Baelish) I hope that in the books she takes the lessons he gives her and then uses them to move on peacefully with her life, not be stuck at the mercy of those around her.

sansa and petyrBut the show, after giving her an empowering half season, where she is rapidly learning under Baelish’s tutelage and handling herself with elan in a dangerous court, throws her back down, literally, and has her delusions of control ripped away from her. And the worst part—she’s probably going to have to rely on a man (Theon or Baelish) or another protector (Brienne) to get her out of there.

I see how its tempting to shove Sansa back into the role of the captive princess, something she’s been forced into time and again. But now, when it finally looked like she was getting out of it, it just seems needless and downright cruel to make her suffer through it again. If viewers really are expected to take her seriously, as something more than a deluded little girl, why force her through the same hells again and again and have her rescued by other agents? This, this is what I do not like.

I’m holding out hope still that Sansa will reclaim her power. I have no doubts that she will. But I still don’t see why it need have been ripped away from her in the first place.

Meant to Be

destinyProphecy is a dicey thing. On the one hand, it shapes a narrative, though not always in a way you might expect. It gives a clear end-game to a hero (telling him to defeat a certain someone, like in Harry Potter), it tells people that important councils are happening and they should get to them (Lord of the Rings) or it lays out a bunch of tasks that someone has to accomplish in order to prove themselves worthy of a title/alert the rest of the world to the fact that the mother of all wars is coming (Wheel of Time). The strange thing about it is, even though heroes often really want to know what’s in store for them, if only to figure out how to beat it, once they’ve heard they don’t really know whether it was a good idea to ask for it in the first place.

In ‘real life’, the idea of ‘meant to be’ and ‘destiny’ has a similar double edged appeal. On the one hand, I loath the idea of my life being planned out and written for me by some all-knowing, omnipotent entity. I don’t like the notion of not being able to change things as I see fit, of being condemned, perhaps, to a life that I don’t really like, a job I have no Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334interest in pursuing, simply because something else has decided upon it. On the other, when I think about all the tiny little chances and decisions that led me to a certain place, or person, I realise how easily those meetings and encounters might not have happened. And since that idea is a little terrifying, I like to console myself with the literary palliative: it had to happen, because it was just meant to be.

In the Wheel of Time books, Jordan goes into the ‘ifs’ of a person’s life, creating a device that shows a viewer all the possible decisions he/she might take, and the ramifications of those on the rest of his/her life. It’s a little too much information for anyone to retain, so when characters leave its embrace, they do so with only a ‘vague’ impression. They know enough to recognise warning signs when they see them, to reroute from ‘very bad’ decisions when they come across them, even if they’re not precisely sure why they do it. This is a pretty ingenious way of dealing with the ‘meant to be’/fate conundrum: you know what’s coming enough to guard against it (and some things, he makes it clear, are inevitable), but you can also change things with your decisions, to a certain extent.

satanTo get into the idea of Fate and Destiny and all that is to open up a huge can of worms and delve into the realms of philosophy, stretching back to the very beginnings of human thought. Thankfully for you and me, I’m not an expert on the debates surrounding free will and predestination (although I do remember the basics, courtesy of doing a paper on Milton’s Paradise Lost a few years ago), so I won’t be rehashing them here. Sufficeth to say that in some ways, believing in destiny is terrifying. In others, when you come across the good things and realize how easily you might not have, it’s very, very comforting.

‘Blood Song’ and ‘Tower Lord’

Twitter gives me many things. It lets me engage with people I otherwise wouldn’t, fantasy fans from across the world; it gives me a peek into the daily life and thoughts of famous authors and actors and my other celebrity fascinations; and best of all, it connected me to Fantasy Book Critic, a really great site for any fantasy fan who wants recommendations and reviews of the latest books to hit the shelves.

blood songOne of the series that their reviews pointed me towards was Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow books. The first two have been released—Blood Song and Tower Lord—and the third is poised to come out soon. I admit it took me a while to get hooked onto the first, but once I passed a certain threshold, or once Ryan hit his stride as a world builder and storyteller (which takes about three-four chapters) it’s impossible to put the book down.

The Raven’s Shadow books are set in the Unified Realm, a land that vaguely resembles (you guessed it) medieval England in terms of its social and technological set up. Funnily enough, anthropologically speaking, it seems to mirror Olde Englande as well. The four fiefs that make up the Realm, long at war with one another and now yoked together by a conquering king, Janus, could find similarities with the various parts of Britain—notably Wales finding its mirror in Cumbrael, the southernmost fief. Rather than history, it’s a common faith that unites these fiefs, the Faith. The Faith is split into six Orders, scholars, healers, missionaries, soldiers, and so on. Our main character, Vaelin al Sorna, is a student of the Sixth—the military Order—when we meet him.

tower lord

The book follows Vaelin’s journey through training by the Sixth Order, from his arrival at the Order house to the conclusion of his doomed campaign against the neighbouring Alpiran Empire. Vaelin, as might be guessed, is no ordinary boy. Not only is he the only son of the Battle Lord, King Janus’s military commander, but he also holds and works a power of his own, the blood song.

I don’t want to jump into summarizing the second book, because well, it’s not fun to spoil tower-lord-coverthings for you. Suffice to say, it’s a great follow up, with plenty of action that capitalizes on Ryan’s quite obviously amazing world building skills.

I read both these books in a near haze of astonishment. It was just so thrilling to find a new series to sink into, where the writer has obviously thought his story and his world through and is trying to put a new spin on an old plotline, where one brooding, martially-gifted hero saves the world. I really liked Vaelin, who was both Aragorn-like (brooding, distant, weighted by his past and his power), but also refreshingly young at times, like in his interactions with his Order brothers, or his fumbling feelings for Sherin, a healer from the medical Fifth Order.

Despite their overwhelmingly martial nature (there’s a lot of fighting, and I mean a lot), the Raven’s Shadow books are not without their share of romance, intrigue and moral dilemma. The female characters, in particular, are amazing. I LOVED Princess Lyrna, second in line to the throne, daughter of King Janus, and a mastermind. Lyrna spoke to me not only because she loved books and had a formidable memory, but also because she wasn’t afraid to use it, to charm her admirers while at the same time holding them at bloodsong-main-map-detailedbay with her inimitable wit and power. Almost in direct opposition to her gifts, but no less wonderful, was Reva from Tower Lord, a conflicted, devout warrior who has been raised to complete just one mission. As might be expected, fulfillment of that mission is not everything she dreamt it would be, leading her character along a path few would imagine. And you know what’s best about her? Ryan writes her as lesbian, and injects her with very real, very ‘real world’, self doubt and fear about the same. But it’s never presented as the be-all and end-all of her character arc, something that might very easily have happened in a less capable writer’s hands.

I cannot recommend this series enough. Ryan’s world is richly realized, his characters very well drawn. Now and then he falters in my Okay test (he uses the word ‘rogered’!), but I think I can forgive him, given how much I enjoyed his books and how I’m looking forward to the next. Queen of Fire, you can’t come soon enough!

Cinderella: An Absurd Fairytale

Cinderella-disney-princess-11558572-400-300Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little girl called Ella. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her in the care of his second wife and two step daughters. Jealous of her beauty and general wonderfulness, the stepmother and her daughters forced Ella into becoming their maid, and generally set about trying to repress her spirit.

It’s actually a horrible story, come to think of it.

Ella is forced to slave away for people who she, and her father, had trusted to take care of her, and there seems little happiness in sight. And then things magically look up when the fairy godmother arrives and grants her one wish: to go to the ball and escape the misery for a time.

The important thing that many people miss out in in the Cinderella story is what exactly she wished for. There’s been a meme doing the rounds for a while, that pointed it out. Cinderella didn’t ask for a Prince, or for love; she asked for a night of fun. A night wherecindy she could forget the drudgery of her life for a time, pretend to be someone else and dance away her sorrows like any other privileged young woman in the kingdom. She never asked to be rescued from her situation; that sort of came along later.

I actually think Cinderella is a very gender neutral story. The core is pretty simple: someone who leads a boring, seemingly meaningless life is suddenly sparked into a realm of wonder by some sort of amazing event, and then everything that they have been through acquires significance and importance. We tell ourselves that Cinderella was rewarded with love and riches because she was ‘good’ and ‘kind’. There has to be some causal connection between what she did before/how she lived and what came next for her. The fairy godmother didn’t visit the wicked step sisters after all.

Cinderella is the ultimate ‘absurd’ hero, along the lines of Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus defined his hero thus: ‘..the whole being is exerted toward the accomplishing of nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ Cinderella’s drudgery was undertaken as some kind of absurd punishment, handed down to her by someone who, by all rights, should have risen higher than to take out latent frustration and insecurity on a helpless child. The stepmother is the ‘god’ of Cinderella’s absurd universe, dictating her endless servitude and demanding unflinching love and obedience in return. Being the hapless human she is, Cinderella delivers.

Cinderella does the chores allotted to her because she cannot do anything else. There is no place for rebellion in Sisyphus’s world. His knowledge of this, and his ability to continue on in spite of it is what makes him a hero; similarly, for Cinderella, she perseveres simply because she must. She has no choice. The way her life is lived is unchangeable by her own agency; the attitude she brings to it is what makes her heroic.

cindy bubble

The beauty of a fairytale is that things can change, and often do, for no real rhyme or reason. Cinderella’s escape from her absurd existence is simply a fluke. The fairy godmother appears literally out of thin air and rescues her, provides her the night of fun she desires. That brief escape from her rock leads to bigger and better things, but how long before those become their own version of the dreary existence she just left behind? Camus makes it clear that this constant repetition of a meaningless task, the endless labouring towards a hazy and undefined goal, is what defines modern existence. Power comes from recognising this and continuing regardless. it comes from watching as the boulder rolls down the mountain and then following it down the path, to start afresh. ‘..the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols,’ Camus notes. In the recognition of his state, he owns his fate and diminishes the power of the gods.

Cinderella’s ‘escape’ from drudgery is the joy inherent in a fairytale, a pretty fabrication told to children. The reason the story ends where it does is because to follow it onwards would be unbearable. We would see her happiness dissolve, her marriage become routine and rote, another boulder to be rolled up a hill. We might see her giving joy and life to it, as becomes her character, but it wouldn’t do the job of conveying the fabricated moral half so well, that ‘kindness’ will get you places.

One must imagine Cinderella is kind.

Choosing sides: Cho Chang and the dilemma of friendship

parks-and-rec-bachelorette-square-w352Powerful female friendship is something that, increasingly, TV shows are getting the hang of depicting. Bonds between female characters are increasingly becoming the focus of various series, most notably in Girls, Parks and Recreation and even Orphan Black. Even the very testosterone-laden Mad Men has its share of female friendships, like the one that’s grown between Peggy and Joan.

Fantasy, though, seems to be lagging behind in this field. Perhaps its the overwhelmingly ‘male’ nature of the genre, where female character led books are outnumbered drastically by their male counterparts. Even Harry Potter, which has a good number of strong female characters, stumbles when it comes to depicting friendship between them. This may of course be due to the fact that the narrative usually follows herm and ginHarry’s view, and he’s hardly the most observant narrator. But Rowling does throw in a few tidbits about conversation between, say, Hermione and Ginny, or Molly and Tonks, to indicate the ‘girls’ do talk, but when they do, it seems to be mostly about men.

Here’s an example. When Harry breaks up with her, Ginny says that Hermione had told her to date other people earlier, to loosen up around Harry. So the one reported conversation we have between the two (apart from vague allusions to Ginny telling Hermione about how she would break into the boys’ broom cupboard at home) is about a boy. Tonks comes over to the Weasleys’, for ‘tea and sympathy’ about Remus. Romilda Vane asks Ginny about the rumoured tattoo on Harry’s chest. And Mrs. Weasley, Hermione and Ginny sit around giggling over a love potion in the dining room of the Leaky Cauldron in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Given all this, I somehow doubt the books would pass the famous Bechdel test.

But my point here is not to dissect the gender dynamics of the Potterverse. Or rather, it is, but I want to focus on the presentation of one character in this regard: Cho Chang.

cho wandCho is, funnily enough, the one character who really sticks up for a female friend over a boyfriend. When Marietta Edgecombe gets hauled up as the snitch, the one who ratted on Dumbledore’s Army, and Harry confronts Cho, Cho springs to her friend’s defence. She tries to explain what drove her friend’s actions, mentioning the fact that her mother works in the Ministry and that she was under pressure to protect her family, but Harry is unsympathetic. In fact, later he fumes that Cho should have had better sense than to be friends with the girl in the first place, and is incensed that she would even try to stick up for her.

And after that, things sort of unravel for the two of them.

cho and harry

I suppose you could put this outburst down to the fact that Harry is, at the end of it all, a fifteen year old boy, and not a very sensitive one at that. But given that loyalty and sticking by his friends is such an intrinsic trait for him, it’s surprising that he doesn’t appreciate it in Cho. But I guess that’s because, to his mind and that of most of his supporters, Cho’s friend has done an unforgivable thing, and she is compounding her own guilt by continuing to associate with her. From Harry’s point of view, Cho might be endorsing Marietta’s extremely problematic actions.

I think Rowling presents a very interesting dilemma here. Is Marietta’s selling out of the group similar to the way in which Pettigrew sold out Harry’s parents? I think Harry might see it that way, which is a little unfair because the bond between Marietta and the rest of the group is not halfway near as strong as that between the Marauders. Second, would choHarry really have respected Cho if she had turned her back on her friend, instead of defending her? Right then, Harry sees it as a simple choice: Cho has to choose between him and her friend. By defending Marietta, Cho declares that her support lies with her, and she doesn’t care how Harry feels.

One of the key indications we have of Harry maturing is his forgiveness of Snape at the end of the series. In Half Blood Prince, when he finds out that it was Snape who told Voldemort of the Prophecy, he is extremely angry, both at the professor and Dumbledore for continuing to shield him. But at the close, he has forgiven and understood Snape’s actions enough to actually name a son after him, and confess that Snape was ‘probably the bravest man’ he ever knew.  He’s learned enough to place actions in perspective, and possibly to forgive people for doing things he himself wouldn’t. He is able to feel sympathy for Draco when he has a viewing of Voldemort using him to torture others; he can coach Ron into destroying a Horcrux very soon after his return, not letting any of his anger for his abandonment touch him; he even, we are led to believe, helps to commute the Malfoys’ sentence, and lets them get away with paying fines rather than serving time in Azkaban. Harry stops reacting in a knee-jerk manner, being less of a Sirius and growing into a Lily by the end of the series. And it’s because of things like the encounters with Cho that we can really see and appreciate this change.

Wow, J K Rowling. You really are a genius.

That-Was-Bloody-Brilliant-Ronald-Weasley-Gif

Wow, J K Rowling. You really are a genius.

Studying Fantasy: An interview with Professor Robert Maslen

univ of glasgowThe University of Glasgow has announced an M.Litt in Fantasy this year, and being the pseudo academic non pseudo fantasy lover that I am, I couldn’t resist taking a peek. I wrote to the program director, Professor Robert Maslen and he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions on the course, the process of designing it and the place of fantasy in academia today.

I definitely think all those interested in studying the genre in a university setting should consider the program. For more details, check out the website.

Also it totally helps that the place looks like Hogwarts.

Photo on 2015-03-17 at 11.18

Professor Robert Maslen

Here, we hand the floor over to Professor Maslen.

1) What drove you to create this programme?

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, so the programme could be described as the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. I’ve taught an undergraduate course in fantasy since about 2006 (it’s called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’, and it recruits so well that we have to cap it every year). I also supervise undergraduate dissertations on fantasy, and in recent years the number of fantasy-themed dissertations has increased beyond all precedent. A good proportion of my doctoral students, too, have worked in the field. All these developments convinced me that a Masters in Fantasy would attract students. And when I did some research and found out that there is no other such course in the world (though I would be happy to be disabused of this notion – there’s plenty of room for more!), I knew the moment had come to set one up. I should add that I’m tremendously lucky to work at a university that supports the idea of teaching fantasy, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I know from experience how rare it is to get the chance to work on fantasy in higher education, and it’s to the eternal credit of the University of Glasgow that they didn’t consider the award of a ‘Masters in Fantasy’ too embarrassing and dismiss it out of hand.

2) In the description of the programme offered on the University website, you say that the course is divided into two parts, with Part 1 focusing on fantasy literature from 1750 [1780 actually!] to 1950. What made you choose this time frame and not earlier texts like Beowulf and Morte d’Arthur?

Good question, and I’m not sure how good an answer I can give! There are two, in fact. One is simply that I wanted to focus closely on the fantasy texts I love, and that these have tended to be from the period covered by the course. Embracing a longer period would have meant sacrificing the sort of close scrutiny I thought these texts warranted and have too rarely received. The other answer is to do with the definition of fantasy. Among other things I’m a scholar of early modern literature, and I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with the notion that fantasy existed in the sixteenth century or before. This is because I tend to define fantasy as the literature of the impossible. What makes a story fantastic is the fact that the reader knows full well that a certain element or elements in the narrative could le mortenever have happened, and our willingness to embrace impossibility as an integral part of the reading experience is what makes the genre unique. What’s deemed to be impossible changes, of course, between one century or decade and the next, and I’m not sure what they would have said was ‘impossible’ in the sixteenth century. So fantasy for me begins with the Enlightenment: the point at which certain thinkers decided that certain things were definitely possible and others not. We break the course in half at 1950 because the 50s are the decade of three hugely influential fantasy sequences: the Narnia chronicles, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and of course The Lord of the Rings. After that decade everything changed, and we’ll have our work cut out in the second semester to squeeze in everything people want to read between 1950 and the present.

3) Will students have the opportunity to explore other, diverse sources and their impact on modern fiction? Such as myths and sagas from Scandinavia, Japan and the Middle East?

The main thrust of the core course is towards an exploration of literature and the arts rather than myth and folklore; and its focus is on English language fantasy. The reason is simple: we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to address the full range of myth and fantasy from around the world in the short time available to us there would be no time to do justice to the focal texts, that is, the fantasies we want to study. There will be plenty of opportunity, though, to study fantasy traditions arising from other cultures. You could choose to do an option in Literature and Theology, for instance, which would let you explore the relationship between myth and fantasy under the guidance of experts in global culture. And of course you could do in-depth work on fantasy in relation to Japanese or Icelandic – or indeed Czech or Indian – culture in your dissertation.

4) As an academic, do you think fantasy runs a very real danger of becoming dangerously reductive in its presentation of different communities?

I think all fiction courts this danger, and that it’s the responsibility of creative writers to work against cultural reductiveness and of academics to point it out wherever it occurs. A certain element of reductivism is inescapable in a university programme like the Masters in Fantasy, in that it’s impossible to represent the full range of fantasy traditions in different global communities, or even in different communities within the English-speaking world, in just two semesters. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t encourage our students to explore fantasy produced by some of the many communities we have not been able to cover – either in options or the dissertation.

aiel

5) Where does the line lie between children’s literature (a lot of which can be considered fantasy) and the more adult books we classify as ‘fantasy’ in the publishing world? What about books that straddle both those genres—such as the Harry Potter series or ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

There isn’t a line, I think, except the one you choose to draw as a writer, publisher, reader, or academic. Many books written to be read by children have ended up as favourites with adults (the Harry Potter series is a good example). And a lot of older children’s literature is now mainly read by adults: how many children these days read The Water Babies or Peter and Wendy? One thing that fascinates me, though, is the number of major fantasy works for adults that have their roots in books for children – which is one of the things I harryunderstand by your term ‘straddling’. Two obvious examples are The Lord of the Rings, which began as a sequel to Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, and T H White’s The Once and Future King, whose first section is a revised version of his children’s novel The Sword in the Stone. Unlike any non-fantasy fiction I can think of (again, I’m happy to be corrected!), these two books or book series are formally and stylistically designed to take account of the maturing of the child into the adult reader; and both of them help to explain why many fantasy readers are so profoundly un-snooty about the line you speak of. What these works say to us is: the line between childhood and adulthood is one we’ve all crossed, if we are adults, though few of us can say exactly when; and the process of making this transition can and should be traced in fiction’s form as well as its content. For me, the text that first successfully blurred the line between adult and children’s fantasy – I mean to the extent that one can completely forget it was initially marketed as a book for children – was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I remember reading this as a 9- or 10-year-old and being profoundly shocked by its refusal to entertain any of the literary conventions I was familiar with – such as adopting the viewpoint of the young protagonist, or treating him unequivocally as a ‘hero’. There was a coldness, a detachment from Ged’s predicaments that unnerved me as much as it fascinated me, and my attempts to grapple with this difference marked a major step on my road to becoming a mature reader.

6) What do you consider essential reading for anyone interested in this programme?

George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, John Crowley’s Little, Big, and anything that matters to you personally. Part of the pleasure of fantasy is that all our lists will be different. Read the fat books before you arrive and you’ll enjoy them a great deal more than if you rush through them after your arrival; they deserve to be mulled over in the long evenings.

7) Given the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, do you think some of the traditional concepts of fantasy have changed, such as the clear cut definitions of good and evil that dominated earlier writers’ work? How do you think this will change perception of the genre?

Love me, love my evil.

Love me, love my evil.

Aren’t we rooting for Steerpike, in the Gormenghast books, even as we revile him? Where exactly does evil reside in Lud-in-the-Mist, or Little, Big, or even Phantastes? The big exception is The Lord of the Rings – along with the Narnia chronicles – which unequivocally pits good against evil in a battle to the death. One of the values of a programme like the Fantasy Masters is that it enables you to see how exceptional and surprising Tolkien and Lewis are in this emphasis, and how almost as soon as their impact began to be felt writers also began to problematize the good/evil dichotomy that was essential to their visions. This being said, I think A Game of Thrones, like all major recent phenomena in fantasy (I’m thinking of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy – if that’s fantasy – and the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), help to throw new light on the history of fantasy, altering our view of it, either subtly or radically, to the enrichment of the genre. Fans of The Game of Thrones may turn to the quasi-political fantasies of E. R. Eddison to find out where Martin sprang from; just as Potter fans helped restore to us the genius of Diana Wynne Jones, or Gaiman conjured out of the past Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his great inspirations. I love the fact that modern fantasy writers are so keen to proselytize about the authors they admire. All these writers are changing perceptions of the genre – have changed them, to the extent that it’s now respectable to have a Masters in Fantasy at a major British University, something I thought would never happen in my lifetime!

8) Do you think fantasy is not given its due weight in academic circles, still, or has the growth in audience (thanks to big budget films and runaway successes like Harry Potter) changed that?

It’s still not given its due weight. I have academic colleagues who will say to me that they never read fantasy: yet they teach the fantasies of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter on a regular basis. Their distaste for the genre is hardly surprising, given that the term ‘fantasy’ has always been used as an insult, a way of suggesting a childishly irresponsible tendency to turn away from the urgent danyproblems of ‘real life’ and seek comfort in dreams. At the same time, the big budget films and runaway successes show us how widely this tendency is shared among contemporary readers and viewers around the world, so it seems to me childishly irresponsible not to subject fantasy to the same level of intelligent scrutiny we apply to far less widespread cultural phenomena. People seem to feel the need for fantasy in the twenty-first century, which means we should feel the need to study it.

9) How do you think this course will benefit a long-time reader of fantasy?

Each time I write about a familiar text I feel as though I’ve developed a better understanding of why it made such an impact on me and its other readers. Each time I re-read a major fantasy novel to teach it afresh I discover something new and astonishing about it. Reading fantasy texts in the historical context of the genre’s development, discussing them in the light of the various theories that attempt to explain how the genre functions – these activities will radically change your views on fantasy, I guarantee it. You won’t read it in the same way again after taking this course. And in my experience, this means you will take more pleasure in it, not less: analysis enriches, it doesn’t diminish. The course will also introduce you to texts you don’t know, and that’s something to celebrate. The canon of fantasy hasn’t yet been fixed. What I prize won’t be the same as what you think important, and teachers and students in the programme will be constantly sharing ideas about the fiction, films, comics and computer games that matter to them. And each new fantasy text you discover will subtly change the map of the genre you’ve been drawing in your head. Surely that’s an adventure any long-term reader of fantasy couldn’t resist!

10) And finally—what’s your favourite fantasy book and what are you reading now?

My favourite fantasy book changes as often as my favourite food. When I was seven, The Hobbit was the most important. When I was thirteen it was The Lord of the Rings; at wizardtwenty I might have said The Book of the New Sun. But the works of Ursula Le Guin are probably the ones that have meant most to me, most consistently, across the years since I started reading. So I’ll pick the six-volume Earthsea sequence as if it were a single book, and say it’s my favourite.

I’ve been reading Patricia McKillip in recent weeks. I loved in particular The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Alphabet of Thorn. I’ve re-read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers for a class and been blown away again by its complexity. And I’ve also just finished the third novel in James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, of which I’m a big admirer, and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Both of these helped to confirm my view that we’re living in the most ambitious epoch of fantasy writing – both for adults and children – and that fantasy readers should be happy to be alive in the twenty-first century.

The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

hermioneReading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

This is a child who knows her stuff.

This is a child who knows her stuff.

This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And hermione newspapershe doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive, badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

This is the Way the World Ends

harry deathlyToday I woke up feeling like the world was going to end.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt it. That honour belongs to a grey, misty day in Delhi, when the world was muffled by a blanket of smog and things were so out of whack that even the Metro, the most faithful and perservering of services, shut down. I knew things were bad when my boss called me and told me not to come in to work because the trains weren’t running.

Given that I’m a naturally optimistic person, I have often wondered where I would be, and what I would be doing, and who I would be with when the world finally ground to an ‘end’. I’ve come to the conclusion that I would most likely:

1) Be on my way home from work, and therefore, stuck in the metro.
2) Texting someone about how blah my life is.
3) Just mildly annoyed when people started screaming and shoving when they saw the big wave of fire/water/industrial waste/kaiju and thinking ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of this city’.

And then the world would end.

Basically, I wouldn’t be doing anything I really loved, or with the people I love. Isn’t that what every disaster/apocalypse movie teaches us? When the shit goes down, you are not with the person who means the most to you, and the rest of the movie is a long struggle to get to them. If you’re lucky, like Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, your  jakerelatives are very plucky, experienced people who will find and rescue you, even if you are barricaded into the New York Public Library.

Is this fear of the bathetic, the apocalypse being a major cop-out, the result of an overwhelming sense of, I don’t know, annoyance? Since we’ve consistently proven to ourselves that humanity is capable of cruelty and evil on a terrifying scale, we don’t need the hijinks of a God-driven apocalypse to shock us anymore?

I’ve wondered sometimes if the drive and re-turn to fantasy, to staples of heroism and ‘goodness’ enshrined in books like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Harry Potter is because it’s hard to find those clear-cut morals in the ‘real world’ anymore. In these books, you have a simple way of setting things right, a set manner that can be considered ‘right’. A saviour will show up and do something and everything will be good again. The end averted, the Darkness dispelled for the time being. All you need is a little faith.

That's how it won't go down.

That’s how it won’t go down.

In fantasy books, the world threatens to end with a bang. You can prepare for it, you can see it coming, and if you’re lucky and dedicated enough, you can postpone it. In the real world, you’ll probably be stuck, complaining about your commute, and your biggest worry would be that your phone service was acting strange.

 

The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.

arwenThere are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

arwen and elrond

There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

it was a gift

Eugh. What a shitty move.

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that Arwencenturies of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

The Magician’s Land

cover54662-mediumAll fantasy series come to an end. Cataclysmic, complicated or clownish, eventually the writer tires of playing with the world she’s created and decides to retire gracefully while the going’s still good. Or while the heroes are still young and relatively good looking. No one wants to spend time casting an 80-year old Harry Potter after all, even though audiences would probably still go to the Imax to watch that movie.

Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’ trilogy came to end last year, but thanks to my habit of being chronically late to many parties, I just about watched it fold its covers and retire to a hallowed space on my shelf. It didn’t compel me as much as The Magician King did (oh Julia, you were just something else), but true to Grossman’s form, The Magician’s Land did leave me with a lot to think about, something I always appreciate in a fantasy book.

I’ve said it before, and I think I will continue to say it for years to come: Lev Grossman is a writer who can take the fantasy conventions you’ve taken for granted all your life and turn them upside down. Even in this book, which, in many ways, has the most staid premise of them all, he manages to surprise.

Quentin has been expelled from Fillory, the magical land he once ruled over with his magician friends. Unable, or unwilling, to sink back into the slough of despair that had ruled his return the last time (in The Magicians), Quentin sets himself a new project, and along the way, falls into a number of crazy adventures that unite him with friends old and new, as well as make him some unexpected enemies.

(It is hard to write a book review of a book in a series, I realize. You really can’t give much away at all.)

The Magician’s Land harps on many of the same themes that riddle Grossman’s previous books. What do you do when you have unlimited power and no villain to destroy? What use is idealism and nobility, all the things that the fantasy books teach you, in this ‘wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long’? How does all that reading and learning really help you handle this ‘heartless wasteland’?

I am, of course, looking at ‘magic’ as Grossman’s metaphor for higher education, or the sort of crazy idealism that many fantasy readers secretly harbour deep beneath their most cynical surfaces. Quentin, the fanboy, reflects on the lack of ‘obvious’ use/meaning of magic in a world devoid of monsters and dark lords and other obvious personifications of Evil:

‘What do you think magic is for?…I used to think about this a lot. I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say “hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.”

‘But in real life that guys never turns up He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it out all by yourself….There’s no answers in the back of the book.’

Quentin is older, more sure of himself in this book, and the burden of being a lost lamb is taken up by a new entrant: Plum. A comfortingly Hermione-like character, Plum is the smart, driven girl who seems to be a fixed type in Grossman’s universe. She steps into the competent friend/caregiver/supporter role vacated by Alice, and disdained by the distant and rather inhuman Julia. The absolute lack of romantic affiliation between Quentin and her probably adds to her appeal, and also makes her the perfect Hermione foil to Quentin’s brooding and distant Harry.

The book provides a good close to a great trilogy, and definitely leaves you wanting more. Will Grossman indulge us with more Fillory books? Will he continue to follow the adventures of Quentin and his friends, or let them walk away into the horizon, triumphant for now? Probably the latter. There’s only so many times you can pose and answer the same questions, until the originality wears off. I wonder, though, how well this very cerebral series will translate when it goes onto TV screens. Not going to lie, I’m a little apprehensive about that.

But screw it, I’ll definitely watch the show anyway.