A Tale of Elven Overlords

There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the  Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the  Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the  dawning of Men means the  end of the  other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the  two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.

Ithose-above-covern some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the  Eldar had continued to dwell in the  same lands as the  humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the  two races to have united fronts in the  first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the  more advanced of the  two, the  Elves, holding dominion over the  many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the  premise of Polansky’s narrative.

The  Others, the  Eternal, the  Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the  human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the  top of a mountain, in the  Roost, with the  five lower rungs populated by the  humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the  human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the  Eternal. Until now.

I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The  story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a  military commander of the  Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the  Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the  Fifth Rung, the  most poverty-stricken area of the  Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the  mind of the  reader. The  Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the  rest, related as they are to the  politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the  Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the  way through that the  narratives seem to come together, and the  threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.

But when they do come together, the  effect is so worth it. If Lord of the  Rings is the  those-belowpremise, the  execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the  interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the  rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the  characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the  bluff, but essentially good, military man, the  scheming widow, the  pretty, devoted servant, and the  angry young man. And yet, the  way they play against each other, and the  events that they are spiraled into, make the  reading worthwhile.

Though finally, it’s the  Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the  reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the  struggles against them, and the  various forms those struggles take, the  Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the  humans in their world, and the  readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.

Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the  world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the  books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the  best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the  Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself. 

Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rematch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Unworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

Aragorn_in_Forest

What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly build by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very much invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits, I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of 1716995-mulanbooks or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the switch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional
heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing my book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

Frodo

There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways.

Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

JK-Rowling-interview

A few days ago, J K Rowling began releasing a series of short writings called The History of Magic in North America. These pieces (of which there will be five; four are out, as of the writing of this post) provide snapshots of the development of the wizarding world in what is now the United States, setting the tone for the Fantastic Beasts movies, the first of which will be in theatres by the end of the year. The movies, which chronicle the adventures of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), are largely set in 1920s New York, seventy years before the events of the Harry Potter series. The writings are posted on the new Pottermore website, and are available for anyone, member or not, to read.

Rowling’s first post, ‘Fourteenth Century—Seventeenth Century’, mentions the Navajo legend of the ‘skinwalkers’. According to myth, a skinwalker was ‘a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.’ In her post, Rowling states that the skin walker legends had their ‘basis in fact’, the skinwalkers being Animagi who were unfairly prosecuted, often by fraudulent ‘No-Maj’ (the North American term for Muggle) medicine men who were afraid of the exposure of their own lack of magical skill.

It seems, on the surface, an innocent enough tie-in to Rowling’s extended Potterverse. The backlash however, has been angry, with a number of Native American activists accusing Rowling of stereotyping of First Nations peoples, generalising specific tribes’ legends and beliefs to encompass all their differing, specific cultures, and affronting their cultural sensibilities (for a well written piece on this, go here). Criticism was only stepped up with the publication of the second in the series (‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’), where aside from a description of ‘Scourers’, unscrupulous magic users who ‘even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards’, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is washed out of the narrative altogether.

Now, as a general reader, I don’t think Rowling is under any obligation to write a detailed history of the United States, taking into consideration all its major historical landmarks and moments and tying them into her magical narrative. However, I do see the complicated nature of this particular sally. I’m not sure whose ‘side’ I’m on, in this affair, mostly because I find the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’, most of the time, to be a not entirely unmixed affair. But let me lay out my view on this, and you can decide where I come down, if I come down anywhere at all.

  1. It’s true that the Native American genocide and the Slave Trade are both cornerstones of the modern United States, and their repercussions continue to ring through the country today. While Rowling does not dedicate much space to these tragedies, she does not, to be fair, talk of the Revolutionary War either, or the Civil War. The only ‘historical event’ she pays more than passing heed to are the Salem Witch Trials, which leads me to the second point.
  2. Rowling seems to be consciously offering no more than quick, picture postcard-like sketches of a vast history, and to do this, she latches onto the markers that already have some currency in popular imagination. The Salem Witch Trials are, arguably, the most famous mainstream evocation of ‘magic’ in US history. They have been immortalised on screen, in plays (you can’t argue with The Crucible) and are now cemented in the mainstream as a time when ‘witchcraft’ was believed to be real and punishable by death. Though far from the only instance of such widespread witch hunting (which continues to happen in countries across the world), they are arguably the most well-remembered, documented happening. Rowling’s decision, then, to focus on these Trials makes sense, given the context of the world she is building.
  3. To turn to that thorny term, ‘cultural appropriation’. As a reader and writer, I find the term…unnerving. I understand the history and hurt that is loaded onto it, when certain groups that have always been relatively more privileged make use, sometimes an insensitive manner, of the cultural products of those they have actively or unconsciously oppressed. But I think it is far too easy, now, to level this charge at people even when there is no malice intended in their use of such markers. It smacks, to my rather naive thinking, of policing, of wanting to draw lines about who is allowed to ‘use’ what to tell a story or make a song or video. Intention, such a difficult thing to assess and prove, seems to me the basic criterion that should help people decide whether something was ‘borrowed’ or ‘appropriated’. Again, this may just be my own privilege talking.
  4. To be fair, fantasy authors have always ‘culturally appropriated’ things. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, for instance, talks about Eastern countries—in Essos or Sothyros—that sound remarkably similar to Mongolia, China, certain parts of the Middle East. Jordan’s Wheel of Time has an empire whose rulers behave a lot like the rulers of ancient China, lacquering their fingernails and wearing silken robes. When you’re building an entirely new world, you want lots of different cultures and peoples to feature in it, in order to make it realistic, well-rounded. Authors aren’t gods. They have to build something that, while new, also presents a familiar enough aspect that a reader wont be entirely put off (this is why I find fantasy a much more appealing genre than science fiction, but more on that some other time). To this, authors borrow from cultures and histories around the world, knowing that just sticking to their singular perspective does not a universe make. Hell, even Tolkien, who’s been raked across the coals for his racism, fused elements of different cultures together to build Middle Earth.
  5. The reason Rowling has gotten into ‘trouble’ on this front, despite being a fantasy author is because: 
    • The Potterverse, unlike Middle Earth or Westeros, is quite recognisably part of ‘our’ world. It is a secret part of the ‘real’ world we inhabit, and as such, any historical events and beliefs that play a part in our world, there is an understanding that the same should have repercussions on the Potterverse.
    • For this reason, skinwalkers in the Potterverse are held to be the same, in readers’ minds, as skinwalkers in real-world Navajo belief. Rowling is not even pretending to create them anew in an entirely different universe (as Basu reinvented rakshasas in the Gameworld Trilogy, or Stroud djinn and afrits in the Bartimaeus Trilogy), and is borrowing them while making alterations that change their moral position in the original mythology, turning negative beings into misunderstood characters. She is changing not her ‘own’ version of the skinchangers, but those that belong to the Navajo belief system.
    • She is J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most famous and successful writers working today, and anything she does is bound to attract notice of a lot more people than the writing of most authors. If she writes ‘wrongly’ about a particular group of beings, a lot more people are going to read it and gain what might be, to some people, a ‘warped’ understanding of a folklore that is, sadly, far from the mainstream experience of most readers.

I’ve blathered on. In sum, I’ll say this: i dislike the term cultural appropriation. I don’t like putting down lines about who should be allowed to use what from other cultures. In an age where a lot of us have so much information at our disposal, so many different pantheons and treasure chests of stories to work with, I see no reason to stick to only those marked out as ‘yours’ because of an accident of birth. The longer we police other people, the longer we are policed in turn, I think. As stated, it’s all about the intent. I don’t think Rowling meant to harm anyone, simply to have fun building on a world that’s delighted so many people for years. That being said, I see why activists have gotten upset, and can only be sorry about the history that’s led to this state.

Frodo the Writer

Throw a rock in a gathering of fantasy nerds, and you’re sure to hit someone who has some sort of opinion on Lord of the Rings. Like as not, that person will also, if asked, give you an opinion on its hero, Frodo Baggins. Maybe she’ll tell you that Frodo was a weakling, or that his parts were the most boring in the book. Maybe she’ll be a little more charitable and say that Elijah Wood muffed up the character, and didn’t make his struggle as powerful and watchable as Viggo Mortensen’s brooding stint as Aragorn. Or maybe, if this person is one of my more fanfic-loving friends, she’ll say that Frodo/Sam is her OTP and Rosie was just a bad cover-up.

FrodoMy own opinion of Frodo has stayed pretty much the same for the last 13 years, since I first read the books. I liked Frodo. I actually liked him a lot, and put him on my top three list of characters. Sure, Aragorn swept me under his spell for a time, mostly when he was first introduced, but my fascination with him waned the closer he got to achieving all he desired. My liking for Frodo, however, stayed strong, and it was his sections that I read with unflagging interest, his chapters which kept me on the edge of my seat. Aragorn’s story was so straightforward in comparison; Frodo kept me guessing, right till the end when he refused to (spoiler) give up the Ring.

Frodo is easily among the most non-glamorous heroes I’ve ever read. He’s not particularly young and sprightly (he’s 50 years old when his adventures begin, 51 to be precise), he’s well off if not astoundingly rich, and he has absolutely no powers. He doesn’t even have the martial skills that Pippin and Merry seem to pick up. His courage is of an understated, non blustering kind, and big speeches are not his fortre. Honestly, the only reason he ends up carrying the Ring for the first half is because it’s just kinda there. And in the second half, only because he volunteers for something everyone else seems too afraid to do.

So Frodo’s single greatest act of courage in the books is saying ‘I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.’ It’s up to the others to figure out how to get him there.

As he stumbles on his journey, Frodo only seems to grow weaker. He becomes more distant from Sam, only humanizing (should I say hobbitizing?) in short bursts in Ithilien, with Faramir. He spares Gollum for reasons no one around him can understand, and he even turns on Sam for a wild moment, right after Sam has braved a tower-full of Orcs to come to his rescue. He gets carried right up to Mount Doom and then decides he’d rather keep the Ring after all—-or rather, the Ring decides for him, since he’s pretty much fallen under its spell by now. So then we get the roundabout reason for why Tolkien decided he should spare Gollum: thanks to Frodo’s seemingly incomprehensible, moronic decision, the Ring meets its fiery fate, and Sauron is destroyed.

frodo sam

And after all his suffering, being speared by blades and spears and bitten and stung, Frodo doesn’t even get a hapily ever after in his home town. His people don’t understand him anymore, don’t celebrate him or want to know about his deeds. He himself is too far gone to care, but Sam feels it for him. The best thing for everyone is for him to pass away into the West, where he can finally get the peace that he himself gave up at that Council in Rivendell.

But I still love Frodo, in spite of all his weaknesses. Maybe even because of them. He is, to me, the consummate writer figure. Writing is a hard and lonely job, we’re so often told. It’s literally shutting yourself away from everything else and spending hours with your pen, pencil, laptop, quill—whatever you use—on this mission that absolutely no one besides you will understand. It’s a willing decision to step away from the sea of life, from actually living in order to observe what’s going on—in your head or in the lives of others—and be part of something that is, more often than not, quite boring. No one wants to read about writing, and everyone thinks they want to do it, until they begin.

And once he’s recorded his tale and left the book behind for others to fill in, Frodo as a person is no longer important. The world at large doesn’t care about him, he knows. His part in the tale is done.

I could be stretching the metaphor here, but there is, in my understanding, no fantasy hero who comes as close to the writer as Frodo does. He simply has a will and determination to go on, an idea that ‘I’ve decided to do this, so let’s do it with minimal bloodshed’. I think all Frodo’s ideals and personality are pretty much stripped away by the time he gets to the final chapters—his task is all that defines him, and later, the book he’s produced. When you write, you build a world that, though it may have sprung from your imagination and frodo-baggins-the-lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king-2003-_151936-fli_1388098980experiences, must be depersonalised enough that someone, sitting on the other side of the universe, can relate to what you’ve created. You bleach your self from the tome, and set up a shining new space where others can find themselves in turn.

It’s a curious paradox, really, and one I’m not sure I entirely understand. But in my head, Frodo and the task of writing, the sheer grittiness it involves, are tied together inextricably. I love the quiet little hobbit who had the courage to stand up among all those bigwigs and declare his intent and his ignorance both. I love that one of his last acts is to write a book, such a departure from the sword and bravado that defines so many heroes. And I love how he disappears into the pages of his own creation, sailing off its edge into a world we can’t even begin to imagine.