Meant to Be


destiny_2012_by_saulone-d4xg42vProphecy 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 interest 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.

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To 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.

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No, it’s not ‘Okay’

So I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (I know, I’m late to this party). The books are great- I love that Kvothe is pretty much a nobody and a non-prophesied hero who gets by on his wits alone. I love Denna, who is a refreshing break from all the beautiful, ever-in-danger female stereotypes one often finds in fantasy literature, who’s feisty without being a perfect character. I like the amount of detail Rothfuss seems to be packing into this world and last but not least, I love the way he punctuates his narrative with stories, people telling stories and listening to them.

What I DON’T like is his use of the word ‘okay’.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘okay’ has various origin-stories, one of which is that O.K. stood for Old Kinderhook, American Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s nickname. Van Buren apparently signed off on documents with the initials ‘O.K.’ and though he lost his re-election bid, the word stuck as a quick way to signify approval on documents. Other theories say that it is the abbreviation of a jocular misspelling of all correct (‘oll korrekt’) or the representation of Choctaw ‘okeh’ (meaning, ‘it is so’). For further information, go here: http://etymonline.com/?term=ok

To cut a long story short, ‘okay’ is a word that arose out of a specific cultural context, be it the Van Buren signing, the unverified Choctaw expression or the misspelling. It is a word that entered into common parlance due to popularization and repeated use, not because it was evolved to signify a particular object, mood, person, animal, thing, whatever. It is deeply rooted in historical factors (like many words and expressions we use today) and quite possibly would never have developed the place it has today were  it not for those people (Van Buren, the jocular misspellers) and their idiosyncrasies.

It is, therefore, jarring to hear characters say ‘okay’ in a high fantasy novel, whose world is assumed to have developed on an entirely different footing, historical trajectory, what have you. What are the chances that there existed a president/king/dark lord who signed his documents with the initials ‘O.K’ in any  of those fantasy worlds? I ask specifically in the context of high fantasy, not urban or new-age or the in-between space occupied by books like Harry Potter and Philip Pullman or Neil Gaiman’s works. All these books use characters and settings strikingly similar (if not actually based upon) the ‘real world’ depicted in realist novels, the settings and scenarios we are familiar with in our humdrum, Muggle world.

All right, let’s say that somehow, the word has managed to evolve in the fantastical realm in question (in this case, Rothfuss). The second reason why it is so odd to the reader (this reader) is the dissonant note it strikes in the prevailing register of the novel. Let’s face it, most high fantasy in the Western world today is written in the vein or at least the shadow of Tolkien. The author might claim to have never heard of or liked The Lord of the Rings but you can rest assured that some critic is going to come along and compare the newer work to the older one. Tolkien is the grand-daddy of this genre, and all those who have come after him are, whether they know and like it or not, using something of what he has left behind, if only (and this is a pretty big ‘only’) the fact that he can claim to have almost single-handedly made ‘high fantasy’ a respectable, mainstream genre. I’m not saying these authors owe a debt to Tolkien, but the fact remains that Tolkien’s work is recent enough to have clout and make itself known and accepted as the Holy Grail of High Fantasy Writing, and whatever you do, you are GOING to be compared to it. (Also, let’s face it, no one is ever going to come out and call you better than Tolkien, no matter what you do. It’s sad, but you have to live with it, for the next few centuries at least. Come on, no self-respecting critic is going to come out and say that some modern day playwright is better than Shakespeare.)

I let myself get distracted by the Tolkien allusion, but the long and short of it is that thanks to him, high fantasy is not considered ‘high’ if it isn’t written in a certain formal, faux-medieval register, replete with ‘my lieges’ and ‘I know not of what you speaks’. At least, not in my book. Perhaps I’m being narrow minded here, but I think that a lot of readers would agree with me. It’s not slang and informal speech that I’m against, but the context of said speech should be that of the fantasy world, and not our humdrum reality. Expressions such as ‘burn me’ in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time for instance are slangy and frowned upon in courteous circles, occupying the space that is reserved for ‘damn it’ and ‘oh shit’ in our parlance. So if you want to use slang (and you have every right to in a complex world that includes all strata of society and more often than not moves in less dignified circles), use it with context in mind. Make it another facet of the world you’ve built and don’t get lazy and use terms that we use here—you might just stumble across a reader who gets in a snit about it and gets jarred dramatically out of your otherwise finely crafted world.

In short, Hermione is okay, Galadriel is not. Harry might say ‘my exam went okay’, Kvothe should not. It’s lazy, it’s far too casual in a world-inappropriate way, perhaps it’s too American for a genre that we (sadly) look upon as very British, still (like I said, blame Tolkien). And worst of all, it jerks you momentarily out of a wonderfully built and lovingly detailed dimension into a reality which, more often than not, I find myself describing as ‘okay’.

 

 

P.S. – LOTR and other high fantasy fanfiction that uses ‘okay’ gets to me for the same reasons. Unless, of course, the author aims to write a humorous or parody piece, in which case if it’s well done (and many are), anything goes, really.

Darken her skin for me!

I don’t know why, but I always thought of Egwene al’Vere (from the Wheel of Time series) as dark-skinned. Perrin too, despite a great deal of fan art that would argue otherwise. When people are described as ‘dark-haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’, I suppose the postcolonial in me automatically jumps to the conclusion that hey, here’s a (western) fantasy character I could impersonate!

It was such a taken for granted thing for me–that Egwene is dark-skinned. I was so convinced of this (for no apparent reason, except for the aforementioned ‘dark haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’ thing), that I was surprised, shocked even when people exclusively mentioned white actresses when they filled out their fantasy cast lists for a Wheel of Time movie. When I searched ‘Egwene al’Vere’ in the Google image search, I found no artwork that depicted her as brown skinned either. I wondered if I was just delusional, if I had missed something in Jordan’s descriptions.

But when I went back and checked, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything. Yes, Rand and Mat both have hair and eye colouring that is typically associated with white skin, but Egwene, Perrin, Min and Nynaeve’s ‘dark hair’ and ‘dark eyes’ could belong to someone of a darker hue. I suppose this was my subtle response to the ‘white until proven otherwise’ rule that governs much of mainstream (Western) fantasy–I refused to bow down to it. Unconsciously.

Which is, I guess, really the best way to do it.

Does my thinking of Egwene as not white matter a great deal? Not really–I don’t think it changes the way I view her, or Perrin, or Min for that matter. All it did really was give me hope that I could play her if and when a movie series or a miniseries based on the books made it to production. After all, I missed my chance to waltz around with Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Goblet of Fire’. I’ve never quite forgiven my parents for not buying me a ticket to London the minute auditions for Parvati and Padma Patil were announced. The resentment has become a cornerstone of my self-actualization or lack thereof.

But is Egwene being coloured a political statement? Would it mean anything if she were? That’s a question to keep in mind when next you read the Wheel of Time.

My heroine

Last night my internet refused to work. I pondered skiving off writing a piece , but then realized that it would be the easiest thing to do. Taking the easiest course is not something that this particular character ever contemplates, however, so I figured it would only be keeping in the spirit of things if I shook myself, hurled away those thoughts of relaxing with a bowl of chips and salsa and instead, plunged straight into a hard-hitting piece on the wonder that is….

Egwene al’Vere.

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Egwene and I had a love-hate relationship for a long time. I tend to dislike on principle the girl paired with the hero in any fantasy story—hence my dislike of Cho Chang (I was twelve when I read about Harry’s stirrings of interest in her during a Quidditch match, and knew immediately that this girl was a ‘threat’), Ginny Weasley (in my defence, I am not alone in this), Elayne Trakand (again, I don’t need to justify myself) and Min (she was cool to start off with, then quickly became all about Rand). I think this is something to do with my own burgeoning love/crush on the hero, and my identification of this female as a rival, no matter how silly and psychotic that sounds. It goes to show how deeply the women-beware-women trait has been ingrained in me, that I look upon a character in a fantasy story as a rival out to steal what should be ‘mine’.

Of course, it is a whole other level of neurotic that I look upon the male characters as people to be ‘had’ or romantically inclined towards in the first place.

Another, slightly more generous explanation for my dislike of these characters could be my fear, often justified, that they would lose all individuality and importance as anything other than the hero’s girlfriend. Look what happened to Ginny in the Potterverse- here we had this young, shy girl blossom into a hotshot Quidditch player who then did nothing but ‘snog’ Harry. Another example is outlined in my previous post on Nymphadora Tonks (from the same universe), where a promising character got turned into a baby producing device, lopped off from further growth in her own right. Perhaps I feared that Egwene would suffer the same fate.

Thankfully, I was proved wrong. Not only did Egwene not turn out to be Rand’s ultimate flame, but she laid to rest any fears of becoming little more than a romantic interest for any character. In fact, she turns the tables, with her own consort wondering if he has any role besides being there for her.

(It is partly this inability to remain in her shadow that drives Gawyn on the suicidal mission to destroy Demandred, a mission that results, ultimately in Egwene’s own death. Some things just don’t change, no matter how fantastical the world.)

Why did I choose Egwene to be the standard-bearer of my ‘Women in Fantasy’ series? Quite simply because she has had the farthest to go from all those I have on my little list—not only does she achieve the most, rising from a village girl with ‘unbraided’ hair to position of most powerful woman in the world, but she has changed me, changed my perspective on her through the course of fourteen books in ten years. To put it succinctly, I have had the longest and most involved, emotionally charged relationship with her that I have had with any female fantasy character. I started out disliking her intensely, being annoyed with her and gradually came to grudgingly admire her, until I can finally say with complete honesty that she is my favourite character.

Right after Lanfear, but really, I wouldn’t want to be friends with that one. I feel like Egwene and I have had a relationship and grown together. There’s a difference between liking a character for the entertainment value she affords (Lanfear) and liking her as a person and wanting to be like her. That’s how I feel about Egwene.

Whether its her resourcefulness, her courage under fire, her compassion coupled with professionalism or her endearing lapses into classic twenty-something-ness, Egwene is a woman who has made her way steadily in hard circumstances, and won her place at the top. What I really like about her is this tenacity in her beliefs, her knowledge that she can make things better, that she can push herself and succeed against all odds. She never doubts herself,  except for a brief, horrific period early on in the series when she is captured by the Seanchan. This remains a traumatic point for her, and she revisits is constantly in nightmares and revenge scenarios, but ultimately, she overcomes even her debilitating fear of the a’dam and manages to move past it through sheer will.

Egwene is told often that she is ‘stubborn’, a sure match for Rand. She is the only one who has the determination and the courage to face him down, to disagree with him when she finds his plans unsatisfactory. She refuses to let his greater power or vaunted status daunt her, and she is the only one in hall full of usually collected people who manages to keep a clear head when addressing the Dragon Reborn. Surely that says volumes about her faith in herself, even if nothing else does.

As a young woman, Egwene gets her fair share of patronization. She is practically bullied into accepting a position of power, used as a puppet for a time and has to do a fair bit of manipulating and intimidating to ensure that her followers take her seriously as a leader. She makes mistakes, for sure, as any newbie would in her position. Despite her strong views against it, she keeps a woman in slavery, much as it makes her mouth curl with distaste. She treads on toes, makes faux pas and generally tries a bit too hard. But here, I had to sympathize with her. It can’t be easy trying to head a bunch of women, most of whom are centuries older than you and certain that they know best how things should be run. She stumbles, yes, but the important thing is that she rights herself and moves along a path of her own making; she doesn’t just stride smoothly onto a road laid out for her.

I think this, finally, is Egwene’s most important quality, and why I look up to her the way I do. She believes in facing the world head on, looking into the eyes of those who would try to choose a path for her and telling them firmly and clearly, no. She makes her decisions and stands by them; she is not afraid to forge ahead even when all ahead of her seems dark and dreary; she trusts herself far more than she trusts or depends upon the world around her. Egwene exemplifies the power of self belief, the power that rests in the ability to pick yourself up after the world has knocked you down and to just keep on going. She performs the power of the words ‘never give up’ .

So when I find myself wondering what the point of it all is, whether there is any hope of things ever changing for the better in this fear and grime riddled world, I look to her for inspiration. And I always, always find it.

To the strength of self confidence, determination and courage in the face of darkness. To Robert Jordan’s Egwene al’Vere. You are my heroine.

An Ending

They say there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.

But there is an ending.

And what an ending it is/was/will be.

(Warning, there do be spoilers here.)

The Wheel of Time series has been, for me, many things. Best friend in the annals of high school loneliness, support in times of college strife and romantic misadventure, steady backbone of fantastic escape when all I wanted was to switch off and disappear from a mundane, workaday existence of assignments and term papers and weekly tutorials. It has seen me grow from a self-assured fourteen year old to a less-self assured twenty-three year old, from high school to a first job. It arrived shortly after my first foray into Middle Earth, and like Middle Earth, it stuck by me, and shaped me in ways that I don’t yet comprehend.

Maybe a re-read would settle those questions. Hey, any excuse works!

Given its importance in my life, reading ‘A Memory of Light’, the last book, has been a very, well, emotional experience. Not only would I constantly find myself thanking the team at Tor and Brandon Sanderson for taking up Jordan’s heavy mantle with such spirit and enthusiasm, but there were times when I had to force myself to stop reading, so that I could have one more day with this universe. I didn’t want to let go.

Jordan and Sanderson have really outdone themselves in this last book. Each of the characters shone, even the ones I had disliked (or been irritated by) in previous novels. Elayne was such a brilliant Queen, an inspiring figure that I couldn’t help but admire as she rallied her troops and gave Aragorn-like speeches in the face of certain destruction. Min finally found herself, it seemed, and stepped out of Rand’s shadow, coming into a role of her own in her office as ‘Doomseer’. Aviendha, that wonderful woman, blazed in battle, a fount of determination and strength that I am sure I will look to when I feel weak and lost myself. Nynaeve, though less vocal here than in the earlier books, stood solid and steadfast to the end.

But all of them, every single character, male or female, paled beside the one who has been steadily stealing my heart for the last seven books. The one who would not be bowed, though pressed time and time again. The one who does not, and never will know the meaning of the words ‘give up’. Honestly, I think she outshone Rand, the Dragon Reborn.

Egwene al’Vere was amazing. The immature girl who left the Two Rivers grew to hero status steadily in the course of the books, and she exited in a beautiful storm. I don’t think I’ve seen a better or more affecting death-scene in a fantasy novel. She’s risen above the rest, in my estimation, on a crystal column woven of Light, a heroine for Ages to come.

If I were to sit and discuss every character, I suspect this review would become entirely too long. So I’ll save my thoughts for a later day, and do each of them justice in individual posts. Let’s turn to more pedestrian, less emotionally charged aspects now.

‘A Memory of Light’ proceeds smoothly from the night before the grand meeting at the Field of Merrilor to the close of the Last Battle, when Rand’s body is cremated before Shayol Ghul. We get glimpses of old, familiar faces- Hurin, Juilin, Haral Luhhan, Ila the Tinker- as well as longer, more sustained rendezvous with characters like Tam al’Thor, Lan, Faile, even the until-now elusive Demandred. The central characters of course dominate the book- Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Rand. Each of their stories is followed with attention and detail, and you can see how much Jordan, and by extension, Sanderson have loved and invested in these people’s lives.

It was heartening to see that the Shadow did have a plot, that it stood a good chance of winning, and wasn’t bested simply by the luck of the protagonists or the will of the author. I know its unfair to compare, say, Demandred to Lord Voldemort, but if only Voldemort had had some of the former’s brains and planning ability, the conclusion to Harry Potter might not have been as anticlimactic as it was. Here, the Light won on its own strength. It was a good victory, precisely because it came so hard.

The ‘true battle’ that took place in the bowels of Shayol Ghul, I’m still wrapping my head around it. At least, around its fall-out. I know people have been predicting the ‘body swap’ for ages, but I’m still a little confused on how it happened. I suppose a re-read will help sort that out. It is ironic that Moridin was forced to help seal the Light’s victory, a tongue-in-cheek manoeuvre to show that yes, no matter how long someone walks in the shadow, he can turn back to the light. Even if against his will.

I didn’t care much for how the Black Tower plotline was concluded, but it was one small smidgeon on an otherwise ‘exquisite’ canvas. Jordan has left just enough open doors for his readers’ imaginations to run wild, to wonder what happens now. Will the Aiel be safe from the doom Aviendha and Bair saw for them? Will the Seanchan chain of command collapse after the revelations that Egeanin and Min will bring to light concerning the damane and sul’dam? Will Perrin and Faile move to Saldaea, or stay in the Two Rivers and govern from afar? Will Olver really dispose of the Horn?

I’m sure someone will pick over these questions, in forums, in fan fiction, in theory blogs. But right now, all I want to do if find the ‘Eye of the World’ again, return to a time when Rand, Mat and Perrin were young and innocent and thought Baerlon was a big city. I want to follow them through their adventures once again, secure in the knowledge that no matter how dark the moment seems, they will be all right, nay, more than all right at the end.

It will not be the beginning, there are neither beginnings nor endings to the reading of ‘The Wheel of Time’.

But it will be a beginning.

 

Halfway through the Memory

I am halfway through the final book of the Wheel of Time series.

Wait, let me process that.

I am halfway through the FINAL BOOK of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading this series since my fourteenth birthday. I can remember exactly where I was when I finished the Prologue to ‘The Eye of the World’. I remember the heady feeling of wonder and sheer energy that zinged through me when I finished the first book, and clamoured for the second. I was lucky, I didn’t have to wait interminably between books, at least until the eleventh (‘The Knife of Dreams’) came out.

I wrote this review for a paper shortly after I read the first book. The series was by no means new, but I didn’t think it was well-known enough in India, and wanted to do my bit.

After that, I was relegated to the read-and-find-out-in-a-few-years band of fans, some of whom had been reading the series since it first came out in 1991. I did what a lot of others did, to stanch that longing for more Randland. I joined a forum.

The first website that claimed my allegiance was wotmania. I joined in discussions, speculations, started a few myself, made friends on the forums, read their fanfiction (and, in turn, sicced my own on them), chatted with fellows in faraway Norway, and learned much about people in other countries, as well as, of course, people in other, fantasy universes.

Wotmania closed down, and then I shifted my attention to dragonmount.com. I have not been as personally involved on dragonmount as I was on wotmania, preferring to lurk and listen to other people’s discussions than step in myself. I have loved my time there however, and intend to linger on post apocalyptic Tarmon Gai’don.

Being part of this series, in the small way I have, has been an amazing experience. Whether it was waiting to see what the moderator would present us on Fan Art Friday (she would trawl the internet and present, each week, different artists’ versions of events, places or characters from the WOT universe), reading Mashiara Sedai’s theories on ‘WOT if…’, taking part in polls on the forum, discussing the nitty gritties of channeling, politics, damane or defending my indefensible crush on Demandred, super cloaked super-villain, I have loved every moment of it.

I can’t believe it’s going to end, in a small way. There are no more Wheel of Time books after this.

I guess I’ll deal with the creeping grief at the close, when the battle’s lost or won, when the hurlyburly’s done.

Till then, onward with Tarmon Gai’don!