Coming to terms with Snape

snape poster

Is the Gryffindor scarf a sly allusion to the person he’s really protecting?

I have a poster of Snape on my desk. He stands there, poised for combat, wand raised to fight off someone—whether Death Eater or member of the Order, it’s not clear—set against a broken window pane, the view outside indicative of chaos and fire and dark streaks of ‘evil’ Apparition.

It’s an odd choice for a motivational poster, perhaps. Snape is not (as I have made clear) one of my favourite characters in the series. In fact, I still believe that Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the character has made me even the slightest bit more accepting of the man’s flaws, as I might see them. If Rickman hadn’t owned the performance the way he did, I might never have thought of buying a Snape poster, let alone placing it in pride of place on my desk.

Recently, I’ve begun to think about why I refuse to idolise Snape, what it is about him that made me lash out against the rising adulation he receives, what I saw as blindness and willingness to overlook his extremely glaring flaws. I’ve come to a rather alarming conclusion: he terrifies me, more than any other character from the series does.

I think I should explain myself here. Slytherin House, as I made clear in this post, symbolises for me the ability to change your mind and move on, and how ultimately, it is choices rather than blood that defines you. Sure, Slytherin is the blood purists’ house (as made all too clear by its founder, who literally left behind a monster to kill those he believed unworthy of magic), but its residents also, time and again, show they are more than their blood and history, and make choices that ultimately push the series forward along its heroic path.

snape

Yes, Snape makes what is perhaps the biggest decision in the series, because unlike many other ‘big decision makers’ (namely, Lily), he has to live with what he’s chosen—both the good and the bad—every single day. He has to live with the fact that his choices led to the death of his love, and that he must protect the image of the man who ‘stole’ her from him. He chooses to look at the consequence of his mistakes, and rectify them, knowing all the while that he cannot do so. Protecting Harry stems, at first, from a deep sense of remorse, no matter what it becomes later. In many ways, Marvel’s Penance, a superhero who gives himself a literal, iconic ‘penance’ in the form of incredible pain, reminded me of Snape. Every move Penance makes (please ignore the unintentional Police reference), he is reminded of that terrible decision.

(Go read Marvel’s Civil War comics if you want more details.)

So while I absolutely admire Snape’s courage and the sheer intelligence it took to pull off that double agent role (no matter whether he ‘really’ accomplished anything or not…), I am more than a little horrified at the personal toll it took on him. I dislike how much he had to sacrifice in a universe where everyone, even Sirius (in my view the most abused character in the books), gets some measure of happiness. But all of Snape’s chances at it seem to be taken away on a summer’s day, when he made the mistake of calling his best friend a ‘Mudblood’.

I’m not saying that it’s only circumstances that make Snape’s life what it is; indeed, a lot of his misery can be laid at his own feet. While some of his decisions (such as hanging out with the ‘bad crowd’ at Hogwarts, or his cursing Lily) might generously be explained away as an immature, angry response to being mistreated, the later decisions, to be cruel to his students, for instance, is entirely in his hands. Unless it was a means of maintaining cover, I see no reason to bully Neville quite so thoroughly, or to put down Hermione in the fashion that he did time and again.

My reasons for refusing to romanticise Snape, as so many do, is simple: he frightens me.  It frightens me that in this series full of hope and second chances, he doesn’t really get one, personally. His happiness dies the day Lily does, and it terrifies me to think that such a thing might happen to someone, to anyone. Maybe I’m being a coward, and refusing to see life’s darkness for what it is, but I still believe that Rowling’s portrayal of this flawed, heroic man is not a hopeful one. It is a deeply jarring one in this universe full of magic and ultimate victory. It’s a poignant illustration of the fact that not everyone gets a happy ending. Snape’s life is consistently dark, and the snatching away of his one ray of sunshine, while giving him a new mission, does not, in any sense, give him a new hope. He labours on to protect Harry, hating himself, always knowing that no matter what he does, he can never turn back time and bring Lily back. He can never atone enough for what he’s done,as evidenced by the claim, ‘Always.’

snape and lily

And so, sitting on that desk, he is for me a reminder that sometimes, you might choose to do what’s right, and not be rewarded for it. You might not even be liked very much while you’re doing it. It might not make you happy at all. But still, you can retain strength, and keep going, simply because it’s the thing to do.

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The Magicians on TV…and Julia

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very cerebral fantasy book. It stands out from others of its genre for its self reflexivity, its almost painful self awareness. Unlike other fantasy authors who quite openly and intelligently engage with the tradition they are part of (notably Samit Basu and Terry Pratchett), Grossman doesn’t use humour to deal with the weight of ‘the canon’ in his writing. Or he does, but it’s not the dominant emotion in his relationship to it. His work is almost painfully earnest in its desire to deal with the question of what an existential crisis would look like for a modern day, culturally aware fantasy nerd, who stumbled onto magic but didn’t have a Dark Lord to fight.

The answer is apparently the existential crisis would just be worsened, because you would realise that ultimately, magic does not give your life meaning and you’re just stuck with having to create one, like everyone else around you.

As you might guess, this is pretty complex stuff. It’s hard to showcase this in a  sexy, appealing manner on screen, and that was why I was a bit worried about the decision to adapt the book into a TV series. Sure, I’ll watch it, but I can’t help but be a little scared that the core of the book, its ‘meaning’ and ‘question’ as critics might call it, would be compromised in the name of entertaining a larger, not so existential-question-loving audience.

quentin

So, worries in place, I watched the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians. It was entertaining enough—good graphics, some nice showcasing of magic, and quick intros to all the main characters. There were some familiar faces (Ros from Game of Thrones! Ben and little Emma from Gossip Girl!), some sort of surprising changes (since when has pudgy, awkward loner Penny been a Kamasutra sex god? I thought Alice was brown haired and surly quiet rather than obviously Type A fragile quiet…) but I explained these away as either good moves for diversity casting (the former) and need to stick in at least one blonde girl (the latter). The move to age up the characters and have them graduate from college rather than high school before stumbling onto magic was also, I thought, a good one, as it was only after leaving the sheltered environment of undergrad that the aimlessness of existence sort of became obvious to me and several of my friends. Yes, I realise that’s our privilege talking, but since the characters of The Magicians are similarly (if not more) privileged, I thought it relevant to mention here.

What I did not expect, and did not like at all, was the weird scene with Julia.

I should expand on Julia here. She was, hands down, my favourite part of the series, once she came into her own in the second book, The Magician King. I identified with her, to a great extent, and thought it was amazing how Grossman developed her character from, primarily, being Quentin’s unrequited, unattainable love interest, to someone who really goes through a lot to get what she wants: mastery over magic. Julia acts as a brilliant foil to Quentin, making his angst and worries look like the griping of spoiled schoolboy, but still not robbing them of their centrality to the narrative that they hold up together.

In this episode, Julia, who has been turned out of Brakebills but still remembers the world Julia_Wickerof magic, has decided to do whatever it takes to get back the one thing that really means something to her now, magic. She teaches herself spells from the internet, we assume, refusing to listen to a condescending Quentin when he tells her she doesn’t ‘have it in her’ to learn, that Brakebills has not made a ‘mistake’ in turning her away. Julia then gets near-assaulted in a club bathroom, where is forced to reveal her magical abilities and then led by her creepy stalker to what we assume is a hideout and ‘school’ for the ‘non official’ magicians.

So far, so good? No. I did not see why the scene with Julia had to be so, for want of a better word, rapey. Her buttons pop off her shirt one by one, her shirt is stripped off, and she is pinned by an invisible force against what I think are pipes. Then a smiling man approaches her, and it’s obvious to us that he is the one responsible for it all. He asks her how it feels to know that he can do anything to her, to which Julia somehow manages to respond by yanking herself out of his invisible hold and making her hands flare with electrical surges.

I felt really disturbed while watching this. While I understand the writers might have wanted to push Julia into an extreme state of vulnerability in order to showcase her latent talent (a common theme in many superhero/magical stories), I didn’t see why they had to use such an obviously sexual way of doing it. Did she really have to be stripped down and threatened with physical and sexual assault to come out shining? I hate to ask this, but would they have done that if she were a boy? I somehow don’t think the sexual overtones would have been present if that were the case.

Maybe what got to me about Julia’s…experience was how absolutely nightmarish but simultaneously terrifyingly realistic it was. You don’t need to be in a fantasy world to be afraid of something like that happening to you, and I know plenty of people, women especially (me included), who are aware of just how easily that could happen to them. For this reason, I was not able to focus on the ‘magic’ aspect of it, or ‘appreciate’ what it revealed of Julia. I couldn’t wrap my head around why she had to be pushed specifically in that direction, in what felt like a very voyeuristic fashion. And it was quite literally voyeuristic, not inspiring, since her tormentor and near-rapist (though he explicitly disclaims the title) stands around watching with a creepy smile on his face.

Julia goes through some really dark places in the course of the series, but she always comes across as extremely strong. I don’t know if the show is going to explore all those elements (they’ve changed so much already, so who knows), and this may just be their disturbing precursor, but I don’t think that’s really enough reason. I can’t keep thinking this was a Game of Thrones-esque use of rape, or near-rape, to illustrate that this is a ‘heavy’, ‘serious’ show. My point is, you don’t need that to show that a character is releasing energies in a stressful situation. And while Grossman does deal with sexual abuse in his books, he never makes it seem voyeuristic, as the show did.

I hope this was a one-off, and am crossing my fingers that things don’t continue in this fashion further down the line. As we know, the magic only gets weirder here on out.

To be told stories

This post is dedicated to Alan Rickman (21 Feb 1946 – 14 Jan 2016)

ootp-us-jacket-artWhenever I read The Order of the Phoenix, a weird thing happens: the last few chapters of the book leave me, quite literally, in tears. No matter what time it is, no matter what I may have been doing earlier that day, or planning to do later, every time Sirius arcs through the veil, I break down and end up weeping.

A few years ago, I tried to rationalise it to myself. ‘It’s  because I expect to cry, and that’s why I cry,’ I thought, a reading that Pavlov might be proud of. Sirius dying= negative reinforcement:: crying= learned response. Having cried the first or second time, my body has learned that it is expected to shed tears at this literary moment, and so indulges me. 

But then, that doesn’t explain the total, all-out sorrow that assailed me towards the final chapters of Wheel of Time, when characters I knew and loved fell one after the other. When a friend registered alarm at my reaction, I tried to explain, ‘It’s like losing a friend I’ve grown up with for ten years.’ It didn’t seem to make much sense to my interrogator. How could someone who lived in the covers of  a book, no matter how wonderfully written, exist so vividly in my mind, have such an impact on my feelings that I actually shed tears at their imaginary demise? It happened the first time, and it happened recently, on a re-read of A Memory of Light.

Someone said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In that case, perhaps it is only ‘sane’ that I cry time and again. But we can chase for those reasons and just go around in circles, serving only to confuse ourselves (do we cry because we’ve done it before and therefore expect to? Is it, in that sense, like the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry casts a Patronus without worrying because he’s done it before, and therefore knows he can even if he couldn’t have possibly known because Time is weird and it’s all a paradox and well, magic?). We’d end up like Hermione, blinking and saying ‘No, that doesn’t make sense at all!’

What is it about losing a fictional character that is, sometimes, so emotionally devastating? Well, in some cases you watch someone you’ve read about, whose head you’ve lived in for years, perish without the happy ending you’d been hoping they’d get. Sometimes it’s someone you think would ‘get’ you in a way that few other people ever can, or do. Sometimes it’s because you can relate to how the other characters, those left snapebehind, feel. When you live so vividly through someone else’s words, it shouldn’t be surprising that loss, one of those most helplessness-inducing, agonising feelings, filters through,even if the loss is happening to people who don’t, in all physical and ‘realistic’ senses, exist.

In some ways, losing an actor is sort of like this. Actors, and other contemporary celebrities, come, ins some sense, closest to fictional characters. To many of us, they will never be more than the roles they play on screen—I will never know Alan Rickman as a man, but I will always have his movies, recordings of interviews, plays, his voice reading poetry on a Youtube channel. But however much I may read of what he’s said, or watch his more candid moments, I cannot claim to have ‘lost’ him in the way his family or friends have. In the most ‘realistic’ sense, having no ‘real’ connection to him, I haven’t lost him at all.

But still, there is that sense, of something missing. Perhaps it’s because, like I have through many, many of their fictional kin, I lived through Rickman’s characters. He brought to life a person and a story that has played, and continues to play, an incredibly important role in my life. And for that, I will always be grateful to him. For that, I felt, and do feel, no matter how strange it might sound, a vague emptiness, an echo that resounds a little hauntingly with that one word, ‘Always.’

‘It is an ancient need to be told stories,’ Rickman once wrote. It’s a need that he played his part in fulfilling, so brilliantly and incredibly well.

alan rickman

Fantasies of Hope

On January 3rd, J. R. R. Tolkien turned 126 years old. Since I’m super into current events like this, it got me thinking it had been a while since I watched the Lord of the Rings movies, or read the book—though I did reread The Silmarillion some time last year. It also got me thinking about what an immense contribution Tolkien made to my life, and the larger world of fantasy in general, and why he means as much as he does, today.

I visited Middle Earth in a rather roundabout way. I bought a ticket on a false premise: my mother, who had read the book nearly two decades before she told me about it, tried to sell the story thus. ‘There’s this world, and there are all these races, and there’s a war brewing. And this one guy has to stop the war.’

‘So who is the Lord of the Rings?’ I asked, impressed by this succinct summary.

‘He’s the rightful ruler of the world, but he’s been missing for a long time.’

‘And the guy has to find him and give his ring to him?’

‘Yes.’

If you think about it, this summary actually works, if the ‘guy’ in question is a member of the Nazgul. My mother wrote the first revisionist version of Tolkien’s epic, well before it became fashionable. How hipster.

Anyway, you can imagine that, when I actually read the story, it was completely different, the very opposite. Still, though I had been lured to Middle Earth under false premises, I fell in love with it irrevocably. I found it amazing that someone had actually made this place up, and cared enough about it to make up languages. Not just create them, literally build them, accounting for how languages developed and grew, taking into account things like movement of people and their evolving culture. It was quite spectacular.

Now, a lot of people might think that some aspects of Tolkien’s world and work are incredibly dated. The problematic portrayal of women, race and class are some of the reasons why he’s hauled up by critics, as well as the book’s lack of interest in dealing with real-world-style politics, not the kind Dany and the residents of Westeros have to. But no one can deny that Tolkien gave fantasy a mainstream standing, the sort of status make-believe worlds have in the canon and the marketplace alike. And Tolkien also gave fantasy that element that really distinguishes it, in my opinion, from myth: the gift of hope.

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Myth and fantasy go hand in hand, yes. Fantasy as a genre borrows a lot from myth, right from the hero’s journey to various monsters and demigods that populate the trove across the world. But where myth is often messy and amoral, fantasy has much clearer vision of what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This is probably because they’re usually more…human, being Elves and Dwarves and magic notwithstanding. Yes, characters are increasingly growing darker and have visible shades of grey, but we still know, for all the loss of light and corruption in Westeros, that something makes the Starks more ‘good’ than many of their counterparts, or elevate Dany’s scenes to the level of ‘epic’. Where fantasy loses the vested
religiosity or belief that may be inherent in myth, it retains its ability to induce awe and adds real-world morals. We can care about the people of Middle Earth or Westeros, or any other fantasy world, because they, like us, adhere to certain unspoken ideas of good and evil. Some of them might ignore those codes, like people in the real world do, but they still exist.

The quality of hope has no better personification than Samwise Gamgee, the faithful hobbit of The Lord of the Rings. Sam is really a nobody; he’s Frodo’s gardener, who literally gets hauled into the adventure because he’s eavesdropping outside the window. He has no illusions about himself, and that’s what enables him to succeed on his quest, even where Frodo falters. He makes a promise to get a job done, and he does it. But unlike Frodo, he doesn’t lose the sense of idealism that he started out with. In fact, he periodically reminds Frodo of why they’re doing the things they’re doing, best exemplified in this line: ‘There’s still some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’

frodo and sam

At every point in a series, there comes a moment when someone or the other remembers something like this, that there is light (or in the case of Wheel of Time, Light) and that’s why people have to continue doing the ‘right thing’. I would argue that the best example of this sort of ‘hope’ in A Song of Ice and Fire is Dany, who has many such epic aha moments (like when she walks into the fire). The ‘good’ in Westeros is much less abstract than it is in Middle Earth or Potterverse, and everyone is chasing their own agenda, but we root for some more than others because their agendas are less obviously evil, even taking into account the cruel context.

Sam is surprisingly perceptive, and his ability to not just push through, but remain uncorrupted, is one that not many heroes, not even kid hero Harry, can boast of. I’d argue that there’s a bit of him in all of us. ‘There’s some good in this world’ is a surprisingly simple but effective slogan, and honestly, the only way, sometimes, to get through the day.

So here’s to being more like Samwise in 2016.