This is the Way the World Ends

hp all endsToday 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  jake_gyllenhaal_1211400943
relatives 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.

 

Ginny Weasley and the Loving Hero Paradox

Image I’ve been thinking a lot about Ginny Weasley. You could put this down to reading The Half Blood Prince again, where she leaps out of the background of the mill of Hogwarts students and assumes the vaunted title of ‘love interest’ for our hero. You could also pin this down to certain ruminations brought on by events unfolding around me, but that’s quite beside the point.

What’s the deal with Ginny Weasley? She’s smart and pretty and a wonderful Quidditch player, so obviously she’s got all the elements needed to be a popular girl. In the course of two books, she dates three boys, not a staggeringly high number, but certainly more than any other girl in the series (besides, significantly, Cho Chang). She’s capable of attracting a snooty Slytherin, Blaise Zabini, and of impressing the selective Slughorn. Evidently, she’s quite something in the Potterverse.

And yet, for all her awesomeness, Ginny is never made privy to the secret of the Horcruxes, never becomes part of Harry’s inner circle in his mission to destroy Voldemort. Sure, she has a vague idea that he, Ron and Hermione are up to something of crucial importance to the war effort, but she doesn’t know exactly what. Nor does she seem to push too hard to find out what it is. Harry’s reasoning for leaving her out of things is clear: he doesn’t want to endanger her. And Ginny, being perfect, accepts this without question, even going so far as to say ‘I knew you wouldn’t be happy unless you were hunting Voldemort. Maybe that’s why I like you so much.’

Hey, I just realized Ginny uses his name too.

Ginny, for all her awesomeness, is something Harry has to protect, and in order for him to do that, he has to deny himself both her company and any obvious display of attachment (in this case, dating her). But, at the same time, if we are to believe Dumbledore, his ability to be attached to Ginny, to ‘love’, is the power that holds him in his stead against Voldemort. This is underscored when, in the Forest, it is Ginny’s face that bursts into his mind when the Dark Lord levels the Avada Kedavra at him.Image

Ginny is the centre of what I have rather creatively dubbed the Loving Hero Paradox (TM)*. This paradox plays out every time the hero of a fantasy or superhero saga resists love/shuts beloved away because he is afraid that she will fall prey to the evils of the foe, but then, ironically, relies (un)consciously on his feelings for her to distinguish himself ideologically from the villain he fights. This happens time and again in novels/movies where there’s a good versus evil fights; consider Rand in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or even Peter Parker in the Sam Raimi directed Spiderman.

In Harry’s case, the turn away from Ginny is a rather half-hearted move, considering the wizarding world is so small that their association with him makes the Weasleys a well-known and obvious target anyway, even without the addition of romance. Besides, just because he wants her to stay out of it doesn’t mean Ginny actually sits around tamely waiting to be rescued. She’s one of the leaders of the internal resistance in Hogwarts, going so far as to attempt to break into Snape’s office in a misguided attempt to steal the sword of Gryffindor.

Of course, this move begs the question of what on earth the kids hoped to achieve by doing that. How were they planning to get it to Harry? Did they really  know that Harry needed it? I don’t recall Harry ever telling Ginny that Dumbledore had left him the relic. This is one of those random moves that Rowling pulled in Deathly Hallows that requires a deal of explication.

What really bugs me about the Loving Hero Paradox is the fact that it’s so very…male. the only female character I’ve seen pull this ‘oh I can’t be in a relationship because I have better things to do’ line is Katniss Everdeen (and hey, it’s completely justified in her case because honestly, I don’t think she really knows what she feels for either Peeta or Gale until far into the books) and Egwene in Wheel of Time. And even Egwene wasn’t averse to a little romance—she just didn’t have time to deal with Gawyn’s drama until she had cemented herself as leader at a crucial juncture in the war against the Shadow.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that not all that many fantasy/superhero novels or movies are centred on a female protagonist, and so we don’t meet all that many heroines who have to choose between being publicly in love and saving the world. When there are more such gems floating around in the market, we might be able to take a more informed call.

So no, I don’t support Harry’s rather lousy move of breaking up with Ginny at the end of Half Blood Prince. Not only did he choose to do it in a public location, in full glare of the media, at a funeral (man, what an ass. He’s worse than Peter Parker in some respects), but he also was stupid enough to believe that Ginny would sit tight and stay safe on his say-so. He really didn’t know her very well, did he?

I am so glad she proved him wrong.

Coming up: Ginny Weasley, Cho Chang and the Problem of the Weeping Woman

*This new literary term can get in line behind my other gem, Poor Little Rich Boy.

Growing up Potter: A Little Ambition Never Killed Nobody

It wasn’t until I passed through college and into the portals of post-graduation that I realized how demonized ‘ambition’ was in Rowling’s universe. An entire house is set up for those whose overarching trait is their desire to ‘get somewhere’ in life, who will use ‘any means’ to achieve their ‘ends’ (I’m quoting the Sorting Hat here). And that house is that one which produces all the ‘bad wizards’, if Hagrid is to be believed: ‘There wasn’t a wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin’.

Rowling is not the first author to equate ambition and cunning with the snake. The equation was set up way back in Genesis, where Eve was tempted to ‘disobedience’ by the wily serpent. Milton elaborated further in Paradise Lost, where ambition became the reason Satan fell from Heaven in the first place. ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ has become one of the most out-of-context quoted lines in literature, and Satan and his bastard court in Pandemonium are the greatest exemplars of Pride and of course, burning ambition.

It seems only expected that most fantasy authors take their cue from this trope, as Tolkien, Lewis and Jordan (whose Lanfear is certainly a Satanic figure) have done. Samit Basu problematized the easy acceptance of ambition=recipe for Dark Evil Overlord in his Gameworld Trilogy, as has Martin. Rowling, however, has more or less accepted the premise of ambition=unscrupulousness=snake in her world, and it’s this that I’ll be examining in the following post.

Image First off, it’s strange that an entire house is devoted to kids who are ‘ambitious’. Are we saying that the other brave, intelligent and loyal kids are not? Or are these just the kids who were not any of the other things (besides being pureblood-crazed) and hence were labeled ‘ambitious’? What resources are they supposed to use in their quest to prove their ambition, if not bravery, intelligence or loyalty?

Oh, wait. I forgot that the Sorting Hat already gave me that answer: cunning.

So Slytherin is the House for all those who are ready to slime their way up the professional ladder, using old money connections, family networks and other suitably ‘cunning’ means. It makes sense, then, that the one weapon that Snape excels at using is Occlumency, which relies on mentally lying to someone who is reading the person’s mind. It demands intelligence and bravery to hold up, yes, but more than anything, it requires smoke-screening and deft sleight-of-hand with thoughts and emotions, something that a cunning, slippery Slytherin would know how to do.

I think Rowling realized she needed an easy punching bag full of bullies and obnoxious, over-privileged kids and decided that the snake would be a fitting mascot for the House they belonged to. And what trait can you link to a snake? The Ravenclaws have already snapped up intelligence so that leaves the Satanic staple: ambition.

Now let’s look at those in the Potterverse who are ambitious. There’s the classic Slytherin, Tom Riddle, who uses his good looks, intelligence and native skill with spells and research to make himself near-immortal. His career prospects as an Evil Dark Overlord are dampened by a Prophecy, of course, and it’s an everyman with an extraordinary capacity for ‘love’ that brings him down, not someone, say, as driven or career-oriented as Hermione Granger. Though she does contribute a great amount to the downfall of Voldemort, it’s Harry who walks away with the lion’s share of the praise, as is, in the context, fitting.

Then there’s Percy Weasley, the one red-head who makes noticeable, nerdy effort to better his situation and climb the power ladder at the Ministry of Magic. Percy sticks out like a sore thumb in the Weasley clan because, unlike his brothers and sister, he thinks his dad’s desire to settle down in the back-end of the Ministry is a mistake, one that he himself will not make. This, of course, makes him a thoroughly unpleasant character in Rowling’s hands. Instead of complicating his presentation, she makes him out to be a pedant and a bore, one whose academic and extra curricular achievements are outclassed by his need to read books on the lives of Hogwarts prefects, whose ability to run an entire Department one year out of school is eclipsed by his inability to tell that his superior, who was largely absent for most his tenure, was under an expertly-cast Unforgivable curse. Percy gets no slack even in Book 5, where he is made to sympathize with Dolores Umbridge and instigate Ron to turn away from Harry. It is telling that the one Weasley to ever question his family’s blind adoration of Dumbledore gets ‘schooled’ and made to beg forgiveness, while the rest of his emotionally immature siblings sit around claiming credit for who put the most parsnips in his hair.

Even if Percy makes some wrong choices (and I’m not saying he doesn’t), he comes back and apologizes for them, unlike Sirius or James who are never made to say, on screen, that they are sorry for their treatment of those less fortunate than themselves. But we are made to understand implicity that Sirius and James are good people, unlike the boring Percy. They are glamorous and ride motorbikes and play sports; all Percy does is work hard, be responsible and strive for a ‘boring’, influential position in the Ministry.

With her research- and book-honed intelligence, Hermione possesses a skill-set similar to Percy, but her ability to make the correct decisions (unlike Percy and even the young Dumbledore) sets her apart in the category of ambitious characters. You can’t deny that Hermione is ambitious, that she’s aiming to do the best she can in school, better than anyone else in her year. Even after Hogwarts, we are told that she joined the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, campaigning and overturning many restrictive laws used against House Elves, Goblins and other magical beings. If changing the world, one law at a time, doesn’t show ambition, I don’t know what does.

Because of her insistence on using it to define the ‘evil’, snakey House, Rowling has perpetuated the Western literary tradition of seeing ambition as a negative quality, with characters like Hermione being the exception rather than the rule. Never is it stated straight out that Harry is ambitious, or Neville, or Ron. All of them are fairly laid-back characters, content to react rather than act, except in the last book, where Neville steps up and takes on the hero’s burden. In this matter, Rowling differs considerably from Jordan who questions the accepted legacy of ambition=disaster in characters such as Egwene al’Vere and Elayne Trakand. While their world too harbors megalomaniacs, there is a clear distinction between those who strive to reach the top to do good and those who covet power for its own sake.

Perhaps if Rowling had had more Hermione type characters, driven, focused individuals who were shown to possess traits other than the unscrupulousness that defines Voldemort and his ilk, I would not be so uncomfortable with the portrayal of ambitious people. The fact remains however that Hermione is a sole voice of reason among her fellows, who all too often seem to forget that there are more ‘important things’ like ‘friendship, bravery’. Perhaps I too am being unfair in expecting her to shuck centuries of literary weight from the symbol of the serpent and set it gleaming in a new, positive light. We are bowed down by the canon’s weight, as Bloom would argue, and even the best of us cannot hope to carve new meanings for our devices with just seven books to stand against the ceaseless batterings of Literary Convention.

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.

Image

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.