Growing up Potter: Becoming Ron

  In my early adolescence (think 13), I spent many hours doing stranger and stranger ‘personality’ tests in an attempt to discover myself. I would copy paste the results on a Microsoft Word document and pore over them later, analyzing every word in those descriptions (probably written by girls only a little older than me) and convincing myself that these computer-algorithm-based assumptions told the truth about me.

 It was, as I said, a phase.

 Of course, I did tweak my results at times, especially when it came to those ‘Which Harry Potter house would you be in?’ or ‘which character are you?’ tests. I always worked it so that I got Gryffindor (I was such a populist) and more often than not, aimed to be classified a ‘Harry Potter’ in the ‘character’ tests. When I was a little more honest with my answers, as I grew older, I was told I should be in Slytherin or Ravenclaw, and that I was Ginny Weasley. The last, I think, was chiefly because I answered with absolute adoration when asked how much I liked Harry himself, admitting that I wanted to marry him.

 And then, at the age of twenty three going on twenty four, I took a mandated MBTI test. And was told I now had the same personality initials as … Ron Weasley.

Image Yes, this was a surprise. No, I had never seen myself as Ron, Ron—the least conventionally ‘academic’ of the trio, the most traditional in terms of blood status, the most prone to being used for random comic relief. I am not a Ron, I thought. I don’t like to think of myself as a side-kick, a second-fiddle. I am not perennially insecure about my own abilities, needing a boost before every test. I am not the ‘funny’ one in my group.

 The shock and, dare I name it, outrage that gripped me for a couple of seconds after getting the result is telling, I think. It reveals a lot about my inherent snobbishness (seriously, I might have preferred the rich and aristocratic Draco Malfoy, budding Hitler Youth though he is), but it also says something about Ron. If someone who’s read the books back to front countless times can’t recall anything especially emulation-worthy about him in a second of being confronted by his name, whither the appeal of this character?

 I sat back, and I thought about it, and I realized what my problem with Ron was.

 Through books 1 to 4, Ron is undoubtedly Harry’s best friend. He is, in many ways, Harry’s guide to the wizarding world, volunteering as ‘second’ in a planned midnight duel with Draco, sacrificing himself in a game of chess to enable his friends to move forward, providing Harry a family that welcomes and takes him to their hearts. It is a matter of course that these two ‘partner off’ in most lessons, including reading each other’s tea leaves in that memorable first Divination class in Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry does not seem to share the same sort of unquestioned, deep-seated bond with Hermione; in Azkaban, there is a period of time when Hermione’s ‘interference’ results in a fight within the group, with Ron and Harry refusing to speak to her. When compared to the rift that Ron’s jealousy creates within the Trio in Goblet of Fire, however, and the amount of emotional energy Harry expends in ‘hating’ Ron, the break with Hermione seems inconsequential. Rowling devotes large portions of her text to how angry and betrayed Harry feels at Ron’s seeming lack of interest in his fate.

 I would argue this is not only because of Harry’s ‘dark’ teenage angst surfacing (it comes into full throttle in Order of the Phoenix), but because the idea of Ron turning his back on his best friend is so incomprehensible as to shock Harry out of his (until now) usual emotional quietude. Harry is curious or nervous or determined, he is very rarely bitterly angry until this point in the books. Another point to note is that even before they became friends, Hermione has shown a tendency to interfere and boss over Harry and Ron; recall the ‘Midnight Duel’ chapter of Philosopher’s Stone where she waits up to waylay them in the Gryffindor Common Room as they sneak out to meet Draco. Rowling even states that ‘Harry couldn’t believe anyone could be so interfering.’

 Ron’s betrayal was necessary for his, as well as Harry’s, character development. The ever-loyal best friend was shown to have depth and a bit of a petty streak (only natural when you’re usually the underdog, even in your own family), and Harry was forced to make do without one of his usual emotional crutches and so begin his long and lonely hero’s journey. It also allowed him to bond with Hermione, who really begins to steal the limelight at this point in the series.

Image So given that the betrayal has already happened once, and Ron has walked out on Harry when needed already, why have a repetition of the same in Deathly Hallows? Aside from the improbability of Ron managing to get home and stay undercover without putting both his family and himself in grave danger (in the middle of a media campaign which paints his known best friend as Undesirable No. 1), his departure has no significant effect on the plot. He might as well have stayed, stewed, rescued Harry when needed and then destroyed the Horcrux. The information he brings back, that Voldemort’s name is now Taboo, is relayed too late to be of any use.

 This, really, is why I don’t have great fondness for Ron, or the way Rowling treats him in the latter half of the series. The staunchly loyal strategist with a marked flair for improvisation (he was the one who bashed the troll with its own club in the infamous bathroom scene in Philosopher’s Stone) becomes a young man who needs a book to charm the supposed love of his life (who he’s known for six years), who chooses the comforts of home and effectively abandons his best friends and is the only one of the Trio to persist in calling Voldemort ‘You-Know-Who’ (though he is, ironically, vindicated for his nervousness). He’s even stupid and petty in matters of romance, his insecurity laid bare when Ginny lashes out at him and calls him jealous because both Harry and Hermione have ‘snogged’ people. The best Ron has done, Ginny whines, is be kissed by Auntie Muriel.

 Ron had a big moment in Book 5, when he becomes prefect and is given responsibility that even Harry does not have. Again, we are witness to his surprise and insecurity when he says that he expected Harry would get the title. Of course, it turns out that the only reason, ostensibly, Harry didn’t get the job was because Dumbledore thought he had far bigger worries. Poor Ron.

 I do  think the Horcrux-destruction in Hallows was very important and certainly called-for, given the sustained reminders we’d been getting of Ron’s insecurity and inferiority complex, but I’m not sure it was enough. I don’t deny that the movies have also played a huge role in the undermining of this character, the most memorable being the stealing of Ron’s lines in Azkaban in the Shrieking Shack. In the book, Ron, bed-held by a broken leg, screams out ‘If you kill Harry, you’ll have to kill us too!’; in the movie, Hermione, both legs sound, throws herself in front of Harry and delivers the same line. Ron is silent.

 And I’m not even going to mention the fact that in Hallows Part 2, Hermione volunteers to accompany Harry to the Forest while Ron stands around looking macho. Okay fine, I mentioned it.

 I feel sort of, sad, when I think of Ron now. I feel like I often overlook the brave little boy who faced a cold, stone-faced White Queen, not knowing what was going to happen, to help his friend. The unquestioning right-hand man who braved his worst fears and went into the Forbidden Forest, convincing himself with a glance at his Petrified friend. The friend who wasn’t too proud to come back and confess to his mistakes, not once, but twice. Instead I remember the insecure boy who runs around screaming ‘HERMIONE!’ when he really should be keeping his head cool and figuring out a way to get the hell out of that basement.

 But at the same time, I can see why I, or most people for that matter, would be Ron. Constantly beset by insecurity and doubt, measuring ourselves against other, seemingly more ‘collected’ people and feeling and responding to peer pressure in the most immature ways possible. Ron’s is a messy growing up, with ups and a hell of a lot of downs. Ron’s is, therefore, perhaps the most realistic growing up. We don’t all have Dark Lords and prophecies riding on our shoulders, but we sure as hell do have pettiness, jealousy and insecurity to contend with.

 And that’s when Ron becomes a hero.

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A Sirius Play-list

Sirius-sirius-black-7016622-697-470 I felt like doing something silly and light, so here I’ve compiled a list of songs that remind me of Sirius Black. Yes, I do have a playlist on my ITunes called ‘Sirius moods’ (no pun intended), which I listen to when I’m feeling particularly in love with this character. It’s a collection of rather random pieces of music, which fit, in my imagination, with different parts of his life. You’re welcome to try the list and tell me what you think.

Warning: some of it is rather, well, teenybopper and/or angsty. Then again, so much of Sirius’s life is/was angsty, so I think I’m excused.

1)       ‘Prodigal’ by One Republic

Have you listened to the words of this song? It’s all about someone who’s running away. I was in the midst of a pile of running-away-from-home Sirius fanfic when  I discovered One Republic, and I thought it fit so well. Coupled with the fact that he eventually returns to his home (albeit, not willingly), I’ve sort of imagined him as Rowling’s retelling of the Prodigal Son tale.

 2)      What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction

I know, I should be ashamed of myself. Listening to One Direction at my age? It’s true, many of my friends do judge me a little for this (but many of my friends also listen to it on the sly, so clearly I’m not alone). But really, no matter how silly their lyrics (an entire verse of na-na-na?), they have an inability to light up my mood from their sheer inanity. They’re a time machine, taking me back to a time when I thought Backstreet Boys were the coolest and most profound singers I had ever heard. And Sirius does have a way of flipping back his hair (I imagine) that would get me ‘overwhelmed’. Also, you can’t deny that he turns heads when he walks through any door. And he does have an amazing way of lighting up my world. J

3)      Walking in the Air by Celtic Woman

This song magical and dreamy and talks about flying above the world while everyone sleeps below. Is there anything more appropriate for a Potter love-song, or a gentle lullaby while Sirius steers his bike among the clouds? There’s even talk of monsters arising and facing the air-walkers. It’s a gentle song, and the waifish voice makes it even more Potteresque to my ears.

4)      Before the Dawn by Evanescence

This song has, for me, very specific association. I was reading the third instalment of the ‘Sacrifices Arc’ by the immensely talented Lightning on the Wave when I was on an Evanescence backtrack, and came across this, one of their lesser-known songs. ‘Darkness Comes Before morn’ is pretty loaded with Sirius, and the angsty pull of the lyrics, I thought, captured his presentation perfectly. Sirius, whether in the Potterverse canon or its fanfic, is often tortured and bound by the weight of his history and/or blood and much of Evanescence’s haunting music suits him. ‘Even in Death’ is another favourite, encapsulating what I believe Lupin feels post Sirius’s death.

 5)      The Unknown Soldier by Breaking Benjamin

This doubles as my ode to Theon Greyjoy, since it talks about falling apart and yet persisting in the long and determined fight. Both characters fall to pieces, see the world in shades of grey (cue Sirius’s advice to Harry and Theon’s long climb to sanity from his Ramsay-inflected madness), and redeem themselves despite being discarded as traitors. I agree that Theon is actually guilt of betrayal, but hey, his terrible torture makes up for it.

6)      The Way it Ends by Landon Pigg

‘Is this to be our fate?’ Pigg asks at the start of this song. When I think about the kind of boys the Marauders were in Hogwarts, I have no doubt that they are amazed at where their lives led them. There they were, four shining boys, the (seemingly) perfect quartet, and then a little more than a decade later, one is dead, one is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, one is an out-of-work werewolf and the last is a servant of the Dark Lord. And yet, there’s a sense of defiance in this song, an acceptance that if this is the terrible way things were supposed to go, there’s no regret at the close. Instead, the close is where ‘life begins’, echoing Dumbledore’s assertion that ‘Death is but the next great adventure’.

 7)      Ending (Brokeback Mountain OST) by Gustavo Santaolalla

Calm after the storm of Sirius’s life, I need comforting music when I close the covers of The Order of the Phoenix. This piece provides a quiet close to the chaos of emotion that Sirius’s passing generates in me time and time again. I like to think of him walking away into the sunset, his handsome face no longer ‘ravaged’ in death.

8)      Paradise by Coldplay

I know the song is about a girl, but the theme is pretty universal and no-gendered. Someone has a crappy life that doesn’t fulfil any of their expectations, so when they dream they go away into a personal paradise. Sirius’s life is pretty crappy. I would imagine he expected the world when he was young, only to have it fly out of his reach when he grew older and things fell apart so spectacularly. This song not only constructs a world to escape to, it always evokes, for me, an image of Sirius getting on his bike and riding off in a storm, hallooing across the billowing waves.

 9)      Are We Human or Are we Dancer by The Killers

 Yet another goodbye-to-life song for Sirius Black. I do need a lot of uplifting music to get over the end of Book 5. It’s a little disturbing.  It’s much more upbeat than the others I’ve listed and different from them in that it questions the idea of Sirius as ‘human’ at all, as a real person, instead bringing in the notion of him as a character whose ‘sign is vital’ but whose ‘hands are cold’. Are characters real if the book they’re housed in is not read? These are very profound questions that I’m not in a mood to answer. Sufficeth to say that I like the idea of a ‘dancer’ who moves through his host pages, twirling emotions and ideas in his wake.

10)   You’re Still Here by Poets of the Fall

When everything fades away, there’s still the stories we tell and the characters we celebrate. Come rain or shine or hailstorms of despair, the characters we love are always there to shine a beacon of hope, of inspiration, be a comfort. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve turned to a familiar book to hold myself together when particularly upset, or smelled its pages to remember ‘yesteryear’. As evident from my blogposts, Harry Potter is one of the series I’ve dipped into more than once, for various reasons. Yes, every re-read yields something new, but it also acts as an anchor, a reminder that the more things change, the more some things, including great stories, remain the same.

The ones we love never truly leave us.

 

 

 

Growing up Potter: A Little Ambition Never Killed Nobody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Little Rich Boy

What do Jaime Lannister and Sirius Black have in common? A lot, it turns out. They’re both very rich, from proud, aristocratic families (which are very powerful in their respective worlds), firstborn sons with great talent and wit, and, of course, wonderfully handsome. They also turn out to be parental disappointments, trust the wrong people and suffer terrible trials that cause them to question the very foundation of their worth. And yes, they have ‘sons’ who know nothing about them for a very, very long time.

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Jaime and Sirius are shining examples of that up and coming trope, the Poor Little Rich Boy (or PLRB, for short). Shae defines the trope better than I ever could; in Episode 10 of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, she snaps at Tyrion: ‘I’m a poor little rich boy and no one loves me so I say funny things and pay people to laugh at my jokes’, she mocks. Tyrion looks appropriately chastened.*

The PLRB, in my opinion, is popular culture’s response to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, painting a picture that few ‘real’ men could ever hope to live up to. Movies, books, TV shows are rife with this character- just sit in thought for a few moments and you’ll be reeling off a string of names: Chuck Bass, Christian Grey, Gawyn Trakand, Evan Chambers … While the details of their insecurity and weakness might differ, they share some traits including the notion that they have and will always continue to disappoint someone in the course of their (seemingly) empty, worthless lives.

Of course, this is remedied in the case of Chuck and Christian, but poor Gawyn damns himself and Egwene because (spoiler) he can’t get over his Rand-inflected inferiority complex. As for Evan, he was left alone at the end of GREEK, the only character who had nothing specific to look forward to.

In this post, I will examine what makes the PLRB such a compelling character, especially its manifestation in the form of Jaime and Sirius. Certainly a great deal of their allure comes from the fact that they have all that is normally associated with a ‘successful’ person: they’re rich, handsome, smart and very good at what they do, whether it’s swinging a sword or firing spells and planning pranks. At the same time, they are enormously vulnerable, whether because of love, lack of it, or their spotted, not entirely deserved reputations.

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Words Will Sorely Wound Me

Let’s begin with Jaime. When we meet him in A Game of Thrones, there seems little to like about him. He’s ‘golden’ and handsome, true, but he’s also the treacherous ‘Kingslayer’, the man who slew the ruler he was sworn to defend. A few pages after he rides onto the scene, he throws a six year old boy out of a tower and cripples him for life. After this he disappears, returns to wound honourable Ned Stark, and then is only seen again when in chains before the righteous Young Wolf.

If you came to A Song of Ice and Fire as I did, fresh from a world where characters in fantasy books were good or evil, no doubt your head spun when you reached A Storm of Swords and found yourself listening to a man you had decided to hate two books ago. When I first read ASoIaF, the TV series wasn’t even a whisper on the horizon, and so my experience of Jaime (in those first two books) was in no way as well-rounded as that of readers who came to him through the show. In A Game of Thrones , producers and scriptwriters don’t stay inside a few chosen characters the way Martin does—they present a more omniscient perspective, and so we get to see a less than wholly evil Jaime right from the start.

Instead, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a man who wears his spotted reputation with a mixture of pride, resignation and a careful layering of carelessness. He ends the famous declaration ‘There are no men like me. Only me.’ with a half-grimace, underlining the character’s peculiar solitude and consequent loneliness. Coster-Waldeau presents a Jaime never entirely certain of his father’s regard for him, the scene in Tywin’s tent is Season 1, episode 7 (‘You Win or You Die’) being a great example. This scene does not take place in the books (at least, we are never witness to it), but serves, in the show, to begin building the figure of a man who is not entirely inhuman, even if he does do some monstrous ‘things’ for ‘love’.

It’s this lingering sense of honour, of idealism that sets Jaime apart from his twin and his father and makes him similar to Tyrion. For all his devil-may-care swagger, Jaime does set some store by what others think of him—how else does one explain the bitterness that coats his words every time he speaks of ‘honourable’ Eddard Stark and his quicksilver judgments? The strange ‘honor’ that Jaime possesses, that he slowly builds upon in the course of the books, emerges when he is divorced from his family and forced to confront the seamier, less than gilded side of Westeros. Once he is disowned by his father and heads into the riverlands and back to the warfront, the transformation of Ser Jaime is nearly complete.

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Post-capture, Jaime begins to lose some of his swagger and thus begin his journey to ‘likeable’ character in the books.

Black as He’s Bred

Just like Jaime, Sirius too is brought up as the firstborn son and heir of a rich and powerful house, one that holds certain beliefs that often seem to put it at odds (at least, in the years the Potter books are set in and make extensive reference to) with the rest of the wizarding world. To the Blacks, duty to family and bloodline is above all, as enshrined in their motto, ‘Toujours Pur’. Sirius’s breaking of Black family tradition via Sorting into Gryffindor house only marks the beginning of his stated (and canon-supported) rebellion. At the age of fifteen, he famously runs away to join another family (though he never formally changes his name), marking his clear emergence on the ‘right’ side.

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Fan art representation of Sirius Black

Like Jaime, however, the stain of Sirius’ blood/actions never quite leaves him in the text. Misapprehended as the Secret Keeper for the Potters, Sirius is jailed for twelve long, harrowing years and publicly maligned as a traitor of the worst kind. He is never exonerated during his lifetime, forced to hide and ‘escape justice’ for three years on the run for a crime he never committed. The chief reasons for the easy tarnishing of Sirius’s reputation lie, I believe, both in his family’s reputation and his own actions in Hogwarts. As Severus Snape bites out, ‘Sirius Black proved he was capable of murder at sixteen’. Though it’s never stated in the books outright, I believe this was a reason, however slight, for Dumbledore, McGonagall, indeed, most clear-thinking characters’ easy acceptance of his ‘guilt’.

O Brother, Where Art thou?

Another factor that constitutes a large part of both characters’ portrayals  is their relationship with their younger brothers. Both Jaime and Sirius ‘abandon’ their forebears’ definition of family duty to pursue their own goals: Jaime as a member of the Kingsguard and Sirius as a fighter for the ‘blood-traitors’’ side. As stated earlier, at the start of the books, Jaime does not come across as anything other than a dutiful son (chiefly because we do not actually get to look into his head in this section of Martin’s saga). He loves his brother, his worry for him driving him to recklessness and sparking off violence in the heart of King’s Landing. Tyrion himself often thinks of Jaime fondly in the first three books. The regard comes crashing down only when Jaime reveals his own part in the tragic tale of Tysha. At this point, Jaime has already broken from Tywin; this act leads to a schism in his relationship with his brother, one that I am not sure they will ever be able to repair.

Though barely glanced at in the text, it is implied that Sirius too failed Regulus, abandoning him to the manipulations and overbearing nature of his parents. Sirius speaks of his brother with bitterness in The Order of the Phoenix, implying that he was a low-ranking coward who didn’t even have the sort of twisted bravery that would carry him through his chosen service with the Dark Lord. We have no way of knowing whether he ever tried to persuade his brother to abandon the Black beliefs after he ran away from home, but given the Marauders’ general attitude to Slytherins and Sirius’s overwhelming bitterness towards his family, we can assume that whatever attempts he might have made were feeble and, above all, unsuccessful. At least as far as Sirius knew.

‘There are no men like me, only me’

Yes, I’ve already referenced this quote earlier, but I think it’s a perfect summation of the presentation of both Jaime and Sirius in their respective universes. Is there anyone quite as handsome, as well-bred, as good with a weapon or as misunderstood? James Potter may have stood in close competition with Sirius, but the former’s early removal from the series ensures that all we have of him is hearsay (and the occasional jaunt down Pensieve-lane). Besides, the ‘Potter’ name doesn’t seem to have quite the power and dark magic that ‘Black’ has attached to it, the same way ‘Lannister’ sounds a deal more heavyweight than ‘Tyrell’ in Westeros.

Jaime and Sirius’s life choices ensure that they do not follow the ‘conventional’ paths, i.e., marry and settle down to produce equally wonderful children. However, they both do have ‘sons’ (and in Jaime’s case, a daughter as well): Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella for Jaime, and a godson, Harry, for Sirius. Neither of them is there for their children for much of their lives. For Jaime, this is a safety issue, where his very life, his sister’s and the children’s depends on the continued belief of the masses (and the king) that the children are Robert’s. For Sirius, this is because of his being locked away in Azkaban. Even later, however, Harry reflects rather ungratefully (in a throwaway line in Deathly Hallows) upon how ‘reckless’ a godfather Sirius was, hoping that he himself will not be such to Teddy Lupin. Personally, I found this reflection rather astonishing, given Harry’s immediate reaction to Sirius’s death was to blame himself for his own hastiness and willingness to succumb to Voldemort’s trap. The reading of his death as a result of his own recklessness was something I would have assumed Dumbledore would make, not Sirius’s beloved and adoring godson.

Speaking of recklessness, can we forget Jaime’s impetuous wounding of Ned Stark? Or indeed his shoving of Bran out the window? Both are the result of his ‘unthinking’ quickness, a characteristic that Cersei laments and Tyrion cannot afford. Jaime is ‘reckless’, he stabs first and thinks about it later, he cannot be ‘serious’ about anything precisely because, up until his maiming, things come so easy to him. In the world he inhabits, he does not have to wonder about his ability to succeed. Neither does Sirius. This is why they are able to treat combat and perilous situations the way they do: with a laugh, a jest and a casual grace that others cannot hope to achieve.

And yet, we still love them

They have everything, as I’ve no doubt underlined multiple times. They have everything that would make for unparalleled success in any context. And yet, they don’t find it. And that’s why they work.

I had the misfortune to brush through a terrible ‘fantasy’ novel some months ago, where the protagonist was a well-toned, intelligent, handsome man who ‘fought’ to find release. Within a few sentences, I hated him. He was too self-confident (even while being presented very obviously as a flawed and under-confident being), too successful, too together. No one wants a hero you can’t sympathize with, especially in a fantasy novel, where everything else is supposed to be sort of alien anyway.

So what makes these particular near-perfect characters, Jaime and Sirius, work? One reason, I think, is because they are not the main characters. Though Jaime is a viewpoint in A Storm of Swords and the books that come after, he is one among many voices and, he is not one we have been with from the start, as in the case of Jon Snow, Danaerys, or Tyrion. The Harry Potter books, of course, are written primarily from Harry’s point of view, and Sirius ranks far below characters like Ron and Hermione and Neville in terms of screen-time. We don’t see too much of either of these figures, a fact which, I think, makes them more attractive and less jealousy/cringe-inducing as was the case with the earlier mentioned character.

Besides, Martin and Rowling are far better writers than that guy was.

Second, I believe the manner of their introduction has a huge part to play. Both Jaime and Sirius are presented first as ‘bad guys’, and it’s only later that we learn the stories behind their supposed crimes. The readers’ initial dislike or negative impression of them is slowly corrected only after surprising and thought-provoking revelations, which raise complicated questions about duty and loyalty. It turns out, surprisingly, that these guys were placed in hellish situations (especially in Jaime’s case) and tried to make the best of what they were offered. I think our surprise at their ‘good guy-ness’ and the revelation that we, the judging readers, have also condemned them without hearing the whole story, does a lot to help us forgive them their Rich Boy angst. We are now eager to make them understand that we are different from their dense, unmoved peers. We hear them, we see their ordeals, we appreciate what they’ve been through. We are now there for them, heart and soul.

This finally, is what makes characters like Darcy, Christian Gray, Jaime and Sirius tick—the readers’ desire to be forgiving and benevolent, to hand out comfort to those who are otherwise misunderstood by their own society. We are all a little bit like Sansa Stark in that way—these ‘monsters’ won’t hurt us because we know their weaknesses and unlike the rest of the mileu, we understand them.  We know the real Jaime Lannister, we see past the glamorous exterior of Sirius Black, we really have the power to forgive them their stupidities and mistakes.

I think it’s that, really, that makes these characters so seductive. The idea that, no matter how perfect they are, they have weaknesses that only we as readers are privy to and can forgive. It’s hard, if not impossible, to exert the same kind of power in real life—all the glamorous, powerful people are not waiting for you to come to them and assure them that everything is okay. Neither would they be supremely grateful for it. But these guys—they’re all ours to forgive and love. And everyone knows that in fantasy, it’s the forgiver who’s the real hero at the end of the day.

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Frodo taught us well.

* I haven’t included Tyrion in this definition because he does not have the same physical and social advantages that these Rich Boys have. He’s a Poor Little Rich Boy with a lot more problems than these guys could ever dream of.

Reading Rothfuss

How do I celebrate thee? Let me count the ways.

Storytelling forms the backbone of Patrick Rothfuss’ acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicle. The bulk of the narrative is, quite literally, a tale narrated by its protagonist to a scribe (or, to use his given name, Chronicler). Within this narrative are embedded a multitude of stories, told by professional storytellers, by laymen and women, sung in verses by travelling bards and troupers. The leading character and narrator, Kvothe, is himself a hero out of story, whose reputation is steadily bulked up through his life by the tales others have told of his feats. It is not often that you find a hero who responds to these stories by creating one of his own.

The premise of the series (there are two so far: The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear) is pretty much that of any other epic fantasy. The world is going mad, even the farthest corners of it (largely populated by sheep and goodhearted, thick headed farmers) are being intruded upon by demons and men with less-than-noble intentions. Something big is going on in the busy world outside, but in this village, the usual gang continues to meet at the Waystone Inn, drink their ale and tell stories, served by the quiet innkeeper with the ‘true flame’ red hair. The innkeeper is the legendary Kvothe, Kingkiller, University-trained ‘Arcane’, dragonslayer, now hidden away in a humble guise. Why? That, my readers, is what we are supposed to find out.

And that’s just where the uniqueness of Rothfuss’ rendering begins.

I think that, with the surge in fantasy publishing and movie-making, writing good, original books/movies/plays in this genre is getting increasingly difficult. Everyone seems to follow a pattern (read: prophesied hero found in poor, often neglected orphan boy who overcomes obstacles and defeats evil dark lord), recreating, however loosely, the Hero’s Journey recognized by Joseph Campbell. This is largely because mainstream Western fantasy relies heavily on myth for its structure (and aspires to the same universal level, as laid down by Tolkien), so there’s not much room for basic plot reconstruction. Books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are very rare. Your success at storytelling is largely based on how well you can create your world and whether you engage your readers’ attention well enough for them to forgive and forget that they have heard this story a hundred times before.

ImageRothfuss, though he begins with a familiar premise, destroys all notions of ‘copycat’ shortly into the first book (The Name of the Wind). In this review, I will proceed to lay out five major plot points/character constructions that make him different from other fantasy authors I have read, five reasons why you should, if you are a jaded fantasy fan, pick him up. If you are not a particularly jaded/experienced reader, you should pick him up anyway.

#1: Kvothe is not your run of the mill hero

Okay, this is a huge point, and one that almost completely made the books for me. Kvothe is not, wait for it, a prophesied hero. He has not been hailed with cryptic words, not been designated a saviour, not been forced onto a path that will lead, eventually, to the slaying of an evil foe. He doesn’t seem born to fulfil any particular ‘purpose’, though he has talents and skills that certainly appear beyond the ordinary. The quest that he sets himself seems driven purely by personal desire, with absolutely no relevance to the people around him. In fact, most of those around him don’t even know of this self-appointed mission.

And can I just say how relieving it is to meet a fantasy protagonist who is aware of his strengths and plays to them? While I love the trope of the innocent, unsure hero who is humble and ignorant of his own potential, I do love the worldly-wise, sharp Kvothe as well. It’s so hard to pull off a brazen, intelligent character who doesn’t piss off his readers, but somehow, Rothfuss manages. His tone communicates clearly the distinction between the more hardened, experienced voice of Kote the innkeeper, and the younger tone of Kvothe the student and wanderer.

In all, Kvothe is a breath of fresh air, different from the other fantasy heroes one tends to come across. It’s hard not to love him.

#2: Denna

If Rothfuss does well with Kvothe, he outdoes himself with Denna. As the love interest and main female character (there are a number of female characters, none stereotypes), I feared for a moment that she might suffer the fate assigned to most of her breed- be reduced to nothing more than a romantic outlet for the hero’s passion or assigned the damsel in distress role. Denna, much like Egwene, defeated my gloomy expectations. She is literally as described by one of the characters, a ‘shower of sparks from a whetsone’, a spate of blazing light that throws into shadow everything around her. She is feisty, intelligent and so damn independent that you want to cry in relief that yes! Here is a fantasy heroine you can love, you can admire a la Katniss Everdeen. Here is a woman who enters the story as a love interest but is SO MUCH MORE. I love Denna, and I think that I would continue to read this series even if Kvothe sucked, only because I love her so damn much.

#3 The Stories

And there are a fair few of them. Rothfuss weaves beautiful tales, building a mythology for his world. Like in most fantasy novels, characters describe the wonders of a bygone era, one that possessed arts and ‘magics’ that the current one has lost. Besides these token tales of a mysterious past (which will no doubt prove important in the final book), there are a number of shorter, less grandiose stories in the books: folk tales, fairy tales, told by common men and women to pass the time around a fire. I’m going to go all lit-student here and comment on how Rothfuss uses the device of the storyteller not only to frame his narrative, but also to reflect on heroism in general. What is Kvothe but the stories people tell of him? What happens when those stories are done, where does he rest in between? The Kingkiller Chronicle is that rare thing: a story performing itself, showing us what a hero does after he has walked off into the sunset. It’s a bold narrative choice, but one that Rothfuss is executing wonderfully.

#The University

Anyone who ever wanted more of pure Hogwarts goodness, the rivalries between its students, it Houses, its classes without the more dramatic story of Harry Potter; anyone who loved New Spring precisely because it showed us a Tower (however briefly) before the advent of the Dragon Days; anyone who loves the Citadel sections of A Dance with Dragons will warm to the large swathes of text that deal with Kvothe’s tenure at the University. Here you have long, detailed visits to the academic centre of ‘The Four Corners of Civilization’, a look at all the different classes Kvothe takes, the students he meets, the professors, even the exams (here they’re called ‘Admissions’). You have a hero trying to make it on a less than ideal student budget and working while he studies. No plush ticket to five star meals and four poster beds for him. Kvothe lives in a dorm for a while before making his way to better off-campus housing.

I think Rothfuss has time and little urgency in the University chapters precisely because (as referred to above) Kvothe’s ‘quest’ is not one that involves the rest of the world. His friends are not prepping him for an inevitable showdown, nor does all of civilization appear to be moving towards a confrontation. Because of this, life goes on at its usual pace, and we, as readers, are allowed to see the world as it exists well before chaos and confusion (and the drums of war) seeps in.

#5 The Fae

The Fae in Rothfuss’ world greatly resemble the ancient, dangerous Fair Folk of old Irish tales, the People recreated in books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. They are, quite literally, fey, not human in aspect, expression, voice or (most chillingly) laughter. Their paths do not often cross the human world’s, and their customs and societies seem as varied, if not more so, than that of their more mundane neighbours. Rothfuss, though he does not engage in a detailed exploration of this realm (not yet, at least) offers enough tantalizing glimpses to make the reader yearn for more. His writing in these parts acquires an almost poetic bent (you’ll see what I mean), communicating thereby the almost transcendent beauty and ungraspability of these beings. They are not here to help or hinder, particularly. What they do is to remind us of how very large and varied Rothfuss’ world is; how, even two books in, we are not entirely done with exploring it.

Though I have recorded quibbles with his writing, I have to admit that he has the ability to weave an original, arresting story. Get yourself a copy of his book and trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I myself can’t wait for the next.

Fanfic for Profit, the Amazon gamble

Recently, Amazon has launched a ‘commercial platform’ for fanfiction, allowing users to download fics for a small sum. ‘Kindle Worlds’ will host fanfiction based on, at the start, three series: The Vampire DiariesGossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Apparently, Amazon intends to announce more titles soon.

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That is NOT normal.

A percentage of the revenue generated from these downloads will go to the ‘original’ author and rights holder (I’m assuming the latter term covers both the author and the production house responsible for the TV show), the amount depending on the length of the work submitted. At first the platform will only host writing by already-published authors, but soon Amazon intends to make it accessible to more ‘traditional’ (read: unpublished save on the internet) fanfic writers as well.

What are my feelings on this? They are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I think it’s great that these writers, many of them very talented, are getting recognition and some form of reward (one hopes). I have read fanfiction that is better written and more vividly realized than canon (Harry Potter fandom, I’m looking at YOU), and often wished that these writers could be celebrated for their talent (how many times have I whined to a like-minded friend, ‘Why don’t these people write original stuff so I could publish them?’).

On the other hand, the act of creating fanfiction is, in my opinion, one of the most generous and loving gestures one can make to an author/director/creator of a universe. You’re telling them hey, what you have done really affected me, and I’m trying to say something of my own in this space you created and gain nothing from it myself but the ability to say that I too have done my bit to celebrate this world. I am writing because of you. I am putting myself out there because of you and your characters. That’s how much you mean to me.

The addition or promise of money to any enterprise, unfortunately, often makes any enterprise and motivations for its pursuit suspect. It’s the tragedy (or hard reality) of the age we live in. As a working person myself, I know that you need it, and a decent amount of it, and have learned the value of it in the short eleven months that I’ve held this job. And yes, I would love to be paid to do something I love, but I also know that it would make me question myself and my regard for said ‘something’ in my darker moods.

Also, would I really want to pay to read fanfiction? Especially when I know that there’s so much more of it out there for free? And who’s going to filter what goes onto this platform anyway, super-fans? But how can they decide whether it’s worth ‘e-publishing’ on the platform? The beauty of the fandom lies in its unquestioning and easy acceptance of reams of fanfiction (especially in a huge, sprawling mega-polis like the Potter fandom)–literally anyone can put up anything, as long as you abide by community standards and those nebulous terms and conditions that we all agree to but have never actually read.

Also, are authors going to get insecure? Imagine if you are shown hard, statistical proof that some ‘random’ hack’s work based on your work is more popular than your original product. Would it not dented the strongest ego? I can also see this going the other way around–would a fanfic writer whose writing is considered (by himself/herself/others) ‘better’ than the rights-holding author be happy with the idea that a good portion of his/her revenue was going to said rights-holder? I may be jumping ahead of myself and reading too much into a purely commercial venture, but as a fan-fic reader, these are some of the first questions that came to mind.

At the end of the day, I’m no economist or risk analyst. I’m just a fanfic reader who likes to think that she has something, however small, to say about a venture that will (ultimately) affect her and others like her. Luckily the Amazonian arm has not openly touched the fandom I read in, and honestly, I cannot see Potter falling within its reach any time soon. Famous last words, perhaps.

Your thoughts?

For the full article on the Amazon venture, click here.

The James Potter Complex

Author Note: I’m flexing my literary muscles after what seems forever. 

 

Let’s face it. We all want to be fictional characters at some point in our lives (those of us who are not Arjo at least) and the more literary (or neurotic) among us strive to emulate, sometimes unconsciously, our favourites. Fictional people are so, well, organized. They have their lives mapped out for them by someone else, they sometimes look like they got their perfection/beauty/intelligence/Achiever Status without really working for it and, best of all, even the dullest, the stupidest, the most horrifyingly banal of them can boast of having people interested in his thoughts. I know many people, me included, would love to have that particular honour.

 

 Since we cannot actually be them (or maybe we all are, really, and the Universe is one big novel-setting and history a novel in which case everything I’m writing becomes metafictional and therefore profound and too deep to be taken seriously) we strive to live like them. If I’m as cursed and earnest as Harry Potter, surely people will give a damn about what I’m up to? If I’m as flitty-flighty as Holly Golightly, surely I’ll leave a string of yearning men behind me? And if I’m as steadfast and innocent as Anastasia Steele, I’ll definitely win the heart of a man as broken, handsome and rich as Christian Gray.

 

 Yes, I went there and made the reference.

 

 Of course, there are characters none of us want to be: Josef K, Julien Sorel, Kurtz- but that’s a concern for another day.

 

( It is strange that most of the characters that spring to mind as undesirable Objects of Emulation are found within the covers of D.U. prescribed books.)

 

 Who we want to be also changes with time, of course, and not just because of the changing nature of the books we read. For instance, nine years ago I wanted to be Lanfear from the Wheel of Time books. I wanted to be beautiful and powerful and I was a budding megalomaniac. Now I want to be Egwene from the same universe- beautiful and powerful and at the top of my professional ladder at the tender age of 20. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem much chance of that happening.

 

 The people around me have ‘literarily’ grown up as well. The girls aren’t queuing up to be Belle from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’. No, now we all, boys and girls alike, want to be one particular character, and we want to be him with a psychotic intensity that is profoundly disturbing.

 

 We all want to be James Potter.

 

 What’s that, you say? James Potter? Harry Potter’s DAD? Oh please, surely there are more popular choices in the series. Look at Hermione, Ron, Harry- even someone as random as Bill Weasley gets more screen time than James Potter.

 

 But I doubt anyone has had the effect that James has had on my budding psychoanalytical skills. Together, me and a friend diagnosed what we call the James Potter Complex, a serious condition that affects one out of every five Arts students in their postgrad.

 

 What are the characteristics of the James Potter Complex? Just think of James in his Hogwarts years, and you’ll start to get an idea of what I’m going to talk about. In case you are not familiar with the Potterverse, I will elaborate for you.

 

 James Potter is, to put it succinctly, bloody brilliant. He is top of his class, he is an ace Quidditch player, he has a band of loyal friends and an equally fabulous best friend[i], he is popular and, of course, he wins in the romance department as well. There is no category in which he loses out, unless you count his messy hair and nearsightedness, which I don’t.

 

 The best thing about him is his all-rounder status. He appears to be socially celebrated as well as academically brilliant- and he puts no apparent effort into the attainment of either status. When Sirius says he will be ‘surprised’ if he doesn’t get ‘an Outstanding at least’ in his DADA OWL exam, James drawls ‘me too’. Coming from him, we can believe it. He starts playing with a Snitch and bullying Snape right after the paper, while Remus tries to study for (what is presumably) an upcoming Transfiguration exam. James clearly has better things to do than cram for his board exams, but he will still do better than Remus probably ever will.

 

 The problem is, not everyone can be James Potter. Most of us know this, and are not ashamed to admit to Lupinesque hard work. And why should we be ashamed, anyway? There’s nothing wrong with being a geek, as Hermione has so admirably demonstrated. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading your books ahead of schedule, with staying up late nights to get that cramming done, to working yourself crazy in order to keep up with multiple classes.

 

 But it’s just not cool. Not in an age where Facebook rules our lives. We’re on display all the time, we’re finally starring in our own movies (complete with soundtracks in the form of status messages), we are fictional characters who check in and take pictures and like things. We can be as perfect and amazing and enviable as we want. We can be James Potter.

 

 And so begins the ‘I-don’t –study-see-I-just-went-for-a-movie’ or the ‘I-was-too-busy-making-out-with-my-new-partner-to-do-that-reading’ or ‘I-am-like-so-brilliant-I-scored-amazingly-in-my-exam-even-though-I-am-too-busy-snorkeling-in-Malaysia-to-read-my-course-books’. It’s absolute anathema to those in the grip of the JPC to be seen opening a book that is not far, far from the concerns of the academic moment. It is unthinkable that they admit to having read the assigned material the night before the tutorial- no, it must be read only half an hour before the scheduled meeting time, because otherwise, people would think they actually studied. Gasp. That is not to be borne. How would they continue to look cool? Where would the Jamesian spirit be in that?

 

  I could go into a long spiel about the decreasing value of hard work in a society that privileges snapshot success and quick thinking go-getters. I could spend a page boring you with faux sociological theses on the decline of Hufflepuffian ethics and the coolification of Gryffindor daring and Slytherin slickness. These things do tie into the proliferation of the JPC, but a thorough dissection will require a pseudo thesis[ii], not something I think anyone wants to read on a social networking site.

 

I don’t intend to condemn those who suffer the JPC, since I can sympathize with them. To be like James is to have it all, without trying very hard. For a long time, fantasy was held to be the domain of lonely little nerds, who needed tales of underdogs and unlikely foundlings becoming leaders of their people and succeeding where no one else had succeeded before. While the perception of the demographic has changed considerably, we’re still looking for the same things. We want someone who will convince us that no matter how small we are, how lost and confused, we can make a difference.

 

 So while we want to be James Potter, brilliant and popular, we will never admire him the way we admire Harry. For all my self proclaimed brilliance, I can never be James Potter. I’m just not good enough.

 

 But somewhere deep down is the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can be his much less impressive, but so much more heroic son.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] The reason I objected to calling the psychological condition the Sirius Black Complex is twofold. First, Sirius is not nearly so lucky as James- he has had a traumatic childhood, been disowned by his family, and rather than a clean death, he was thrown into a soul-sucking prison for twelve years. I think that balances out his gifts. Second, I don’t think any mere mortal compares to him, but you are free to disagree.

 

[ii] I will, hopefully, do just that. Some day.