#Dragonprivilege, or Daenerys as female role model

‘I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’

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Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoyner, and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, ‘Mhysa’ and Queen of Meereen, has more accumulated more titles in her quick and brutal rise to power than most long-reigning lords of Westeros. She has built, lost and regained armies, won over barbarian hordes, freed thousands of slaves and killed quite a few of their masters. She has done all this without the aid of a husband, despite being propositioned every few months by a new aspirant for her hand.

Daenerys-Targaryen-Profile-HDDaenerys (I’m going to call her the much simpler-to-type ‘Dany’ henceforth) is considered remarkable.in a universe where patriarchy is near-unquestioned, where a woman’s role is basically to provide children and/or sexual pleasure. Women in Martin’s world need to be experts at manipulating others and their circumstances in order to achieve even the slightest measure of power or independence, and here I’m speaking only of those from powerful families. If you’re one of the smallfolk, life is much rougher, no matter if you’re a man or woman.

So it’s no wonder that Dany is considered to be the series, and the show’s, blazing icon of feminism. She routinely blasts apart the power structures put before her, breaking the bars of cages built to contain her and her ‘children’—structures and cages usually put down and maintained by men. In a recent episode, she literally destroys the patriarchy of the Dothraki, burning down the temple that houses the gathered khals as they insult her and threaten her with rape. Recently, again, she got astride a dragon and destroyed an army sent against her by the (you guessed it) male masters of Yunkai and Astapor. Her power is bound up in her identity as a saviour, ‘mother’ figure: her superpower is her children, the dragons, and her soft power comes from the freed slaves devotion to her, or so we are supposed to assume.

But I wonder, after so many seasons of watching her destroy things, march towards victories that no other character in the series can boast of, is Dany still an inspiring role model for women? Isn’t she a bit too, I don’t know…super powered?

“How dare you, madam!” I hear the knives being sharpened. “Are you implying that she is too powerful? Are you saying that a woman is only inspiring if she is fighting from a position of weakness, and not obvious strength?”

That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Let me put it this way: I will not deny that watching Dany storm the patriarchy and burn down things makes me, both as a fantasy fan and one who happens to be a woman, happy. I like knowing that she has made this incredible journey, from scared little girl in thrall to maxresdefaulther brother, to a powerful badass Queen who makes those epic-level statements. But maybe because I’ve seen her do it time and again (it’s been six years of burning down establishments), I’m not as ‘Woohoo Dany!’ as I was before. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that she does these things not only because she is smart and determined, but also because she has powers that few in her world do.

Dany has dragons. No matter how she might have tried to shut them away, they are as much a part of her as her fire-proof skin. Dany didn’t triumph over the khals because she outsmarted them; she triumphed because she, unlike them, could survive blazing infernos. Dany won over the Dothraki by playing their game, proving herself unconquerable and thus earning their mingled respect and fear. Dany won over Slaver’s Bay in the same way: she paid for the Unsullied, and then unleashed her wrath via dragons. She then intimidated Yunkai into letting go their slaves, and finally, conquered Meereen thanks to her soldiers sneaking into the city, and riling up factions to assist her in her takeover. Now that her dragons are grown, it seems unlikely that anyone with a ‘normal’ army is going to be able to bring her down.

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Dany has dragons. And that places her at a power level that few people in Westeros can reach. I would say that at this point, her only worthy rival is, maybe, the Night’s King.

Since she’s at this exalted, almost superhuman status, I can’t quite see Dany as a ‘woman’ first. She’s obviously a hero. She has faced great trials, yes, but where she is now is a position of seemingly untouchable, unassailable dominance. She’s not a flesh and blood woman so much as a mythic figure, an Athena, or Mother Mary, if you will—one of those figures who is venerated and raised so far above the hoipolloi that you can’t point to them and say ‘Be like her’ unless you want to give your girl impossible standards. So while she’s an icon for feminism, in the sense that she fights for a society of equals, rich or poor, man or woman, she may not necessarily be a relatable good model for women.

But the other women of Westeros, they’re all equally, maybe even more, amazing than Dany. Arya, Melisandre, Catelyn, Margaery, Cersei, Sansa (my beloved), Gilly negotiate the brutal patriarchy of their world in varying ways, and manage to achieve their ends. Whether its using their sexuality (Melisandre, Cersei, Margaery to a certain extent), their position as mothers (Catelyn and Cersei), employing their perceived weakness to their benefit (Sansa) or just busting balls old school style by joining the boys’ games and playing them better (Brienne, Arya, Asha/Yara), these women navigate within and best the system in whatever ways they can, seeking to live the life they are given on their terms. They don’t have fire proof skin. They don’t have infallible magic, and they don’t have dragons, but that doesn’t stop them from getting what they want.

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Plus, they’re so fun when they scheme together.

Dany can afford to blast and burn obstacles out of her way, but these women cannot. They must negotiate them, use their wits, their skill sets to do so. Of course, due to their (by and large aristocratic) backgrounds, they have advantages that small folk women do not, and we see in both the books and the show how the latter are brutalised, their lack of power stark (Ros is a powerful example in the show). Westeros is much like our world, you see. While problems are universal, a person’s level of exposure to them varies.

Dany is so elevated above this mass of womenkind that she can no longer be said to belong to them. Once upon a time, she did. But not anymore. That’s beautiful, and hopeful, and she is definitely an icon, but she is not a relatable one. Not all of us have #dragonprivilege, but we can be plucky, and resolute and determined and smart the way so many of the other female characters are. And so I’d choose Asha, or Sansa, or Margaery as my role models. Dany, I love you, but you might just be too hot for me.

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Sansa, the Starks and Westerosi parenting

A long time ago, nearly three years now, I wrote about Sansa Stark.

sansaFor some reason, I was attempting to ‘defend’ her, this child of the north who seemed (at that time) so out of her element, so unprepared for the evils that regularly plague the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. Sansa, more than her other siblings, seemed spectacularly defenceless at the start of the series, even more than Bran, who was early on showing signs of superpowers. Sansa had arguably what would become the greatest political clout—marriage to Robert’s heir—but she had few skills that would enable her to survive in such a court, or so it seemed.

Someone, in a comment on my post, pointed out that this was unforgivable. Sure, Sansa is only 12 years old when the books start, but that’s no excuse for her utter childishness. When I think of it, her willingness to run and rat to Cersei Lannister when this very same woman had proven, earlier on, that she was more than capable of cruelty (it was Cersei who suggested that her direwolf, Lady, be killed) is quite strange. How come Arya’s instincts about people are so much more on-point than hers, given they’ve grown up in the same environment? From the get-go, Arya dislikes the Lannisters, and hates most of the people she meets in court. She is much more small folk friendly than her sister, or her brothers, for that matter, and unlike them, doesn’t seem afraid of slumming it, fitting right into the environment fate has forced upon her.

But Arya’s always been a rebel, unlike her older sister. And she found tacit support for her rebellion in both her father and her older brothers, notably Jon. Ned even hires a ‘dancing master’ for her, encouraging her quite openly in her ‘needlepoint’ lessons. 

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I’m not sure Sansa enjoys that same sort of solicitous attention. She’s shown to be ‘approved of’ and counselled by her mother, in one short scene where Catelyn is doing her hair, and speaking to her of her betrothal to Joffrey. She basks in the praise of Septa Mordane, who commends her needlework and disparages Arya’s much less neat attempts. Cersei’s bits of praise for her beauty and her ability to make her son happy are what drive Sansa into her arms, a huge contrast to her alienation from her father (brutally illustrated when Eddard gives her a doll in HBO’s A Game of Thrones and Sansa retorts that she hasn’t played with dolls since she was eight). Honestly, Sansa seems a cipher to her parents; Catelyn can’t quite comprehend how easily she can be swayed to go to the south, and Eddard appears to have lost any connection with her at all.

True, Westerosi nobles do not seem paragons of parenting in general. Balon Greyjoy, Roose
Bolton, Walder Frey, Randyll Tarly, Robert Baratheon, Stannis…the list goes on and on and on. Mothers too, when not over-indulgent, like Lysa, seem distant and forbidding, like Selyse Baratheon, if they’re not dead or simply silenced by the excessively patriarchal
household. But this being said, Eddard and Catelyn are (usually) regarded as good parents, because they seem affectionate, do not abuse their children verbally or physically and take care to provide them good homes and advice, where possible. Winterfell, at the start of the series, is almost paradisiacal in comparison to what we see of other keeps later—everyone seems happy, content, and the lord and lady are quite obviously compatible with one another, if not crazily in love. The siblings support each other, usually, and are not conspiring to kill and outdo one another. Even the ward, Theon, and the bastard, Jon, lead decent lives—though angst does them in later on.

It’s only later that we see how out of place Winterfell is in the scheme of things, how very different from every other keep and family we come across. Highgarden sounds lovely when Margaery sells it to Sansa, and true, the Tyrells do seem to stick together and be a decent enough clan, but she has most likely been trained in arts that Sansa does not possess. This is even more obvious in the TV series, but it’s hinted in the books too that Margaery is smarter and more cunning than she seems, unlike the relatively less sophisticated Sansa.

Did Catelyn and Ned just not do their job, instead suffusing their children with an idealism that leaves them open to attack? And, to tie back to what I was saying earlier, besides not giving her the weapons to survive in court, did her parents just not really connect with ned and caatSansa, instead leaving her to the devices of books and embroidery and other preteen girls? Cat and Ned seem curiously ‘modern’ parents in some ways, letting their children do more or less what they want (Arya being a case in point), and it’s true that they probably never thought they would be sent so far from Winterfell, let alone out of the north altogether. But still, given their political importance, and the fact that they command the north, it seems a bit..,odd they weren’t taught more savvy. I mean, there are politics at work in the Night’s Watch, for the old gods’ sake! No place, not even the paradisiacal Stark-ruled north, could be so awfully clean—and we see that when the Boltons come into power.

Of course, this could just be Martin’s way of building a huge contrast between the Starks and everyone else, making sure our moral allegiance, such as it is, lies with them. I don’t know about other readers, but I can’t make myself warm to the Lannisters or the Targaryens as a clan, no matter how much I might like individual characters from those houses (Jaime for the win). The Starks seem ‘normal’ in our scheme of things, but that only sets them apart, leaves them open to manipulation and power plays in Westeros.

So for that reason, Littlefinger is both a good and bad mentor for Sansa (and here I’m going purely on the books, where no selling off to Ramsay happens). He develops her latent potential for power games, thus honing her from ‘survivor’ to agent. At the same time, he accelerates her move from naive idealist to world wary young woman. I suppose this is only to the good, in Westeros. Idealism, when it’s not backed by power, doesn’t take you far. Just ask Dany, the only character who can really afford to be idealistic. But then again, she’s got them dragons and that fire-proof skin. Not all mortals, certainly not Westerosi ones, are so blessed.

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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.

Why Does Harry Wear Glasses?

When people send me manuscripts, or ask me for advice on their fantasy books, I find myself, often, saying one thing: ‘It’s great, but why does your hero/heroine have everything going for him?’

Since I’ve said this so many times by now, I thought I would stop and really think about where it’s coming from. Why do I automatically want to change a character who is successful, smart, popular, (more often than not) good looking and well adjusted, and give him/her a little more misery? Is it something as immature as jealousy, or could it possibly have deeper, more literary fuel behind it?

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I think it’s a combination of the two. ‘No one,’ I might tell such a writer, ‘wants to really read a fantasy book about a spectacularly awesome person. Harry Potter works because he is weedy and unpopular and doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing more than half the time. Artemis Fowl is downright wannabe bad. Hermione has bushy hair and anxiety issues. And Jon Snow is quite likely an orphan with an angst overload.’

It may be a bad idea to put anyone from Westeros on that list, actually, since their very lives are cursed by being born into that brutal world.

But why do we want our fantasy heroes and heroines to not really ‘have it all’, at least at the start of their grand adventures? I touched upon this point briefly when I wrote about ‘The Poor Little Rich Boy’, a character type that’s easy to find in this genre. An attractive, wealthy, very skilled man who should, traditionally, be at the top of his social food chain is for whatever self-created reason low down, mired in troubles and more often than not, deeply unhappy. I used Jaime Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire and Sirius Black from Harry Potter as poster boys for this trope. Both have all the factors I’ve listed above, plus a certain swaggering, devil-may-care air, that falls apart quite spectacularly as their story progresses.

Honestly, I think writers do this to give readers a reason to root for these characters. Most people reading the book are not going to be as well-rounded as Jaime or Sirius, nor are they likely to see themselves that way. Give the characters some darkness, a reason for

GAME OF THRONES, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, The Laws of Gods and Men, (Season 4, ep. 406, aired May 11, 2014). photo: Helen Sloan / © HBO / Courtesy: Everett Collection

angst, and the readers are sympathetic, rather than envious. I’m not saying it’s every author’s ambition to make a reader feel ‘better about themselves’, but not feeling alone is one of the many reasons why people read books, and if they see that even those who seemingly ‘have it all’ are not entirely happy (often for terrible, tragic reasons), maybe they’ll feel less overwhelmed by their own anxieties.

Second, a reader needs an anchor in this entirely new, magical world. That’s the reason, I’m sure, most writers pick complete newbies to play the defining, ‘protagonist’ role in their fantasy series—they provide convenient tools through which to info-dump on readers. Harry has no idea the wizarding world exists, so everything he comes across must be explained to him and hence, to us. Rand al’Thor is a village bumpkin who thinks a two-day trip outside his village is a big deal; all the new places he goes and people he meets are, therefore, revelations and worthy of being shared with a reader.

But apart from the newbie status,we need a reason to hold onto these characters, to feel some sort of emotional connection with them. They are,after all, our alter-egos in this fantastic new place. And the easiest way to build this sort of connection is to make us feel just the slightest bit sorry for them. This is why, so often, the heroes and heroines are poor, or orphans, or not especially powerful in their social circles. Then we have a reason to root for them and watch them grow, proud of our own emotional investment that has begun to pay off. Everyone loves an underdog after all.

I think this is also why, so often, fantasy novels stutter to a close once the protagonist has done their job, and bowed out of the arena. What comes after being a hero? Domesticity, for Harry. A peaceful passage to the West, for Frodo. Slow coming to terms with loss, for Katniss. Wander the world, for Shadow. The struggle is over, so why should any of us readers care about these imaginary people in these fantastic worlds any longer?

So this is the question Rothfuss is trying to answer, and I’m waiting to see how he does it.

When arcs come crashing down


Dark-Sansa-2When 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
favourite 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 Theon-Greyjoy-Alfie-Allen-in-GOT-206readers/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.

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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.

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But 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.

Studying Fantasy: An interview with Professor Robert Maslen

University_of_Glasgow_Gilbert_Scott_Building_-_Feb_2008The 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.

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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
arthurnever 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.

Jeremy_Saliba_aiel_take 2

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 harry sorcerers
understand 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?

petyr

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
Daenerys-Targaryen-2problems 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
wizard of earthseatwenty 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.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.

Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.

Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.

Master Manipulators: Petyr Baelish

One thing we love doing in the fantasy community is pitting random characters against each other in grand showdowns. I suppose this has a lot to do with the form of the genre, where really, each series/book ends in a dramatic encounter between the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, or, to give them their genre-specific names, prophesied hero and dark evil overlord. In our time out of the books however, we like to toss characters from different series against each other, to figure out who would win if, say, there was a cross-world war and Harry Potter found himself facing Darth Vader.star-wars-vader-force-choke

 

vs.harry with wand

No contest. Clearly Vader would win. Harry could Expelliarmus his Jedi sword, but Vader does have that nifty little strangulation technique.

In my upcoming posts, I’m profiling characters of a certain type in preparation to pitting them against each other—four master manipulators who pull strings and make puppets dance in their respective worlds. You can thank a rather intense and nerdy discussion on Facebook. What makes this comparison difficult is that all their worlds are so different, and their particular skills and positions are largely shaped by the world they inhabit. Therefore, removing them from their contexts and trying to view them objectively is  trifle problematic, but I’m going to ignore such purist concerns in favor of the potential entertainment these comparisons will afford.

Without further ado…

petyrPetyr Baelish

Strengths:

Utter and complete lack of permanent alliances. Littlefinger is loyal only to himself. He shifts and shuffles his allies according to his convenience, does each major house enough ‘favours’ to make them believe that he is firmly part of their team.

Money matters: Littlefinger has his hands on the economic pulse of Westeros, or whatever passes for it. He finds money where there is none to be found, makes his own from his brothels. Money is might, in any universe, and his gold is what allows Littlefinger to buy knives, protection and loyalty from those who have no other reason to work for him.

Lack of discernible agenda: This is, perhaps, Littlefinger’s greatest strength. He always keeps his opponents guessing. Does he support the Lannisters? Yes, for a while. Why? We don’t know. Does he think the Tyrells should have the power? He certainly seems to let them think he does. He plays people so well because he knows what everyone else wants, which is usually power or vengeance, but no one has the same grasp on him because his long-term plan is so hazy. Does he want to marry Sansa and rule through her? That’s a possibility. Does he just want to do whatever upsets Varys’s plans? Also a possibility. Five books in, we have no idea.

Weaknesses:

Lack of physical strength: Granted, we haven’t actually seen Littlefinger in a fight, but from what we know, he’s a small man who, more often than not, hires people to do his killing. He has never been a soldier, was quite thoroughly routed by Brandon Stark when he did try to pick a fight (fine, he was ‘little more than a boy’ but I’m pretty sure that if he had any latent martial skill, it would have manifested by then), and he does not seem the kind of man who has time to invest in physical training. No, Baelish is much too sophisticated for the old school chivalric/martial code of lords like Ned and Robert. It’s precisely why he looks down on them.

Lack of allies: If push came to shove, who would back Baelish up? No one. Even Sansa is, obviously, playing her own game with him. This is the flip-side of being a totally rogue agent. He has no family connections, no romantic connections (except Lysa, who is now dead) and the one bond he does seem to have, with Sansa, will, I predict, be the one that ends up destroying him.

Conclusion: Littlefinger is formidable. He couples immense intellectual capacity with financial know-how, and plays a game that very few seem to be able to see, let alone guess the object of.  I wouldn’t even call his bond with Sansa a weakness, since we don’t know how far he’s playing her and what his eventual aim with her is. I somehow doubt he’s going to be easily seduced and left for dead. No, Littlefinger’s going to have a bigger plan than just getting into bed with her.

sansa-and-petyr-sansa-stark-34188034-950-525

 

And if he doesn’t, I’ll be rather disappointed.

Next time, I’ll assess the second contestant in this face-off. Who’s it going to be? Now, that’s a surprise.

Theon Greyjoy: Fairy tale Prince

Warning: MASSIVE spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

Excerpt from a conversation with a friend a few months ago:

Friend: I like Jon Snow. And Tyrion of course.

Me: Of course, I like them too! But liking them is so predictable. I mean, don’t you think…

Friend: (vaguely amused and partly scandalized) Who do you like then? Wait, let me guess. Theon Greyjoy?

By now she’s laughing.

theon fan art 1Yes, I like Theon Greyjoy. He is, believe it or not, my favourite character in G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. I’ve liked him ever since he smirked at Jon in A Game of Thrones and pissed him off. This was because it was fun to see that something could piss off the otherwise broody and angsty Jon Snow.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Theon is my favourite, given my soft spot for tormented, good-looking men who mask their vulnerability with wit and martial prowess. Of course, Theon is a bit of a jerk (as most men in ASoIaF seem to be), but that seems part and parcel of being smart, good looking and rich in Westeros.

I think Theon, in many ways, acts as a foil to Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. If you place the three characters on a spectrum, it would range from Jon, loved and respected by his ‘father’ but uncertain of his place to Tyrion, long detested by his true father and condemned to die by his own family. Theon sits in the middle: he was raised by a man he respected, but he could never be certain of his regard (he states that Eddard Stark always made it clear that, if necessary, he would kill his ward to ensure Balon Greyjoy’s continued good behaviour). He returns to a less-than-warm homecoming and feels that the only way to win back his father’s approval is to turn his back on his foster family. Of course, this only ends in disaster with the Greyjoys, apart from Asha, abandoning him.

I thought this last was illustrated powerfully in HBO’s adaptation of the books when Balon Greyjoy, on receiving Ramsay’s grisly present, states that he ‘has no son’.

Another group Theon can be placed in is that of characters who have lost a sense of self, home and family. The theme of familial belonging is one that runs through the series: characters make decisions keeping in mind the survival of their Houses; those who act selfishly are eliminated. ‘Family’ comes first for many Houses, most notably the Tyrells (whose matriarch, Olenna, engineers a complicated murder in order to ensure her granddaughter gets a good marital deal), the Tullys (their words are, after all, ‘Family, Duty, Honour’) and the Lannisters (it’s all Tywin Lannister can talk about, and Cersei and Jaime do a good job of keeping everything in the family). Characters who lose a sense of where and whom they come from are often the most misguided.

In a previous post I stated that Sansa Stark, Daenerys and Theon are among those who ‘lose’ a sense of self in the series. All three make the mistake of trying to be something they are not: Sansa seeking to bury her northern roots and become a ‘true southron lady’ and Dany trying to purge the violence of her heritage by locking away her dragons. Theon is even more complicated than these two: instead of forsaking his roots, he turns to some half-hearted version of them, seeking to earn back his place in a long-abandoned family. Theon’s revelations and upward climb only happen when he accepts and later, gives voice to the desire that has driven him all along. He never wanted to be one of the Greyjoys; he wanted to be one of the Starks.

But for all his conflicts and complications, what I really like about Theon is quite simple: his arc, despite being hellish and terribly painful in parts, is really the most hopeful. At its corny best, fantasy is about hope. It’s about overcoming darkness and fear and living to fight another day. In the world of ASoIaF, it’s easy to forget that basic moral because Martin does such a good job of tweaking our expectations and playing on conventions. Westeros is no Middle Earth, where all you need is an Aragorn-type nobility and steadfast Hobbit courage to win the day. It’s not even Randland, where ‘love’ and willing sacrifice play such a vital role in the Last Battle. Westeros is not an idealized version of our world; it is our world, with all the petty politics, rivalries and screwing around for advantage. Only, it has the added magic of dragons and unpredictable Fire gods, as well as some strange people called the Others. theon fan art 2

In this dreary, depressingly ‘real’ world, Theon stands out. He makes terrible mistakes, but unlike most other characters, he seems to feel a huge sense of remorse, one that propels him to make a painful journey through A Dance with Dragons. Honestly, I thought Theon OWNED that book. He was the one character who quite visibly progressed through its pages: from ‘Reek’ through to ‘The Prince of Winterfell’ and ending, finally, with ‘Theon’. What really got me was that, honestly speaking, there was no real need for Theon’s story that I could see. Like many of my fellow readers, I assumed that, when Ramsay sent strips of skin to Robb in A Storm of Swords, he was dead. To my mind, he had fulfilled his function in the plot: turn against Robb, harry the North, throw everyone into confusion and thus start the Stark fall. And then it turned out he was alive, if barely. I wondered what Martin would do with him. I did not expect the sort of redemption story I got.

Of course, Theon’s crimes are pretty unpardonable. But I don’t think he’s doing any of what he’s doing (saving Jeyne, reclaiming his sense of self) in order to mitigate his actions and earn himself a lesser sentence. This seems, more than anything, a personal quest, a way in which he can die with some sense of peace. In a universe where everyone wants power or vengeance, it’s heartening to come across a character who wants something like this.

Turning the superficial, smirking jerk into this world’s version of an idealist: Theon is Martin’s dark, twisted but ultimately hopeful fairytale.

 

 

 

 

When Gossip Girl meets A Game of Thrones

I recently quipped that, based on a rewatch of the Gossip Girl series, the Upper East Side looks a whole lot like the seamier world of Westeros. It’s got the same elements: people from privileged backgrounds/powerful families fighting for control of a limited geographic space. What happens outside of that Upper East Side (henceforth referred to as UES) area is of little concern, but for some reason it’s a power base that even outsiders want to enter or are forced to contend with, and it ends up corrupting them.

And the true voice of power here? A Varys-like figure who collects and disburses information at his/her own discretion and can lay low the most elevated with one fell swoop.

I decided to have a little fun and lay out some of the parallels between my favourite UES families and their Westerosi counterparts.

The Humphreys – House Stark

Image

This was a no-brainer. The only family that pretends to have any sort of noble idealism, who live outside the polluting atmosphere of the Manhattan area, but who, for some odd reason (love or friendship or simple desire to climb socially) have gotten sucked into a world that leaves them scrambling for purchase. Whether it’s Jenny’s Sansa-like fascination for all things fancy or Dan’s Jon-like ‘outsider’ status, the Humphreys are the Starks, sans the direwolves.

The Waldorfs – House Tyrell

Image

The Waldorfs are the one family that has finished playing out its family drama before the show opens. Headed by a formidable matriarch (Eleanor Waldorf is a little scatter-brained at times, but it was she who, by her own admission, taught Blair her scheming ways), its pride and hope rests on Blair, the supposedly virginal beauty who seeks to rule the UES with an iron fist. Blair is perhaps the one character who is most open about her desire to rule (what, exactly, is debatable at times), echoing Margaery’s famous line in the show: ‘I want to be the Queen’. And Blair will do whatever it takes, marrying disastrously into the royal family of a tiny European nation if that’s what’s called for.

The Archibalds – House Baratheon

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Baratheon, to me, has always been a bit of a random house. What is their USP? It’s not dragons, it’s not wealth, and it’s certainly not misinformed idealism. The three Baratheon brothers we meet in the course of the books are all radically different from each other, and their motto, ‘Ours is the Fury’ is rather lacklustre compared to heavyweights like ‘Fire and Blood’ or the ever-doleful ‘Winter is Coming’. But they are rich, and they are royal—indeed, they were second in line after the Targaryens were bumped off. And people do seem to like (some of) them. The Archibalds struck  me as that sort of family—very random, very rich and sitting on a huge family history that they could use to their benefit if they chose to (which they do, a couple of seasons into the show).

And Nate, if he were anyone on Game of Thrones, would be Renly. Pretty, popular, but no way would he be able to handle the pressures of being king. That’s best left to…

The Basses – House Lannister

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You knew this was coming. The wealthiest house on the UES? The one with the most spotted reputation, with the scheming, cold-hearted father and the disappointing, profligate son who (SPOILER) ends up acting out in the worst ways possible? The Basses can afford to pay off Blair’s dowry and still remain top-dog on the UES, just as the Lannisters extend credit to the throne and manage to field large armies at the same time. The Basses know how to play the games of the UES perhaps better than anyone else, disappearing and reappearing as per their own convenience. They run with unsavoury types, but manage to come out of each scandal with their fortune and their name intact.

And finally..

The Van der Woodsens – House Targaryen

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I have never understood why the VDW’s are so popular on the UES. Aside from Serena’s obvious good looks, the family seems to have nothing but bad decision making skills on its resume. Their family affairs are more messed up than any others on the show, with cheating and lying about deathly illnesses running rampant. They even have a con-artist snuggling into their ranks (literally) and passing off as one of them.

But for some reason, they are up there, powerful and making terrible judgment calls to protect themselves. Like Dany, Serena wants to  dissociate herself from the madness of her forebears and tries time and again to shuck the UES-VDW mantle, to become one of the ‘people’, whether by dating ‘outsiders’ or changing her name. Time and again, she is hauled back to awareness that she can’t escape her past. Serena is perhaps the one idealistic and naïve figure in this bunch of messed-up blondes, and she seems well aware of that.

But when Serena wants, she can take the world down in more fire and blood than even Blair is capable of. In fact, in terms of sheer collateral damage on the show, its Serena who wins top-spot in her generation.

Really, when you step back and look at it, the parallels are rather uncanny. Are we sure the Gossip Girl makers were not reading A Song of Ice and Fire when they scripted their show?