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. 

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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.

Harry Potter, the Everyman Hero

Recently, in a letter, I tried to describe what various books mean to me, the relationships I share with them. Of course, most of those described were fantasy books, ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the stupendously weighty (literally) Wheel of Time books. I called The Lord of the Rings my ‘Bible’, the book that I harry sorcererslove and, as much as I might find elements of it jarring or disturbing, would not presume to pull down from its hallowed space. And I called Harry Potter a best friend, a companion found early on whom I tussle with, ignore sometimes, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, adore.

Enough and more has been written about the books, and what they’ve done for readers across the world. Fans have started charities in the name of Harry Potter spells, Emma Watson has channeled Hermione-like spirit and called for change in the name of feminism, and there are probably fans everywhere who try to live by the tenets embodied in the characters: justice, patience, and acceptance. But what does Harry himself, the character, mean to someone who is, now, approaching the not-so-YA age of 26, who has declared on many occasions that Harry is far from her favourite character, and would rather be sorted into his rival house than the one he himself is in?

(I think that last might be wishful thinking though. Honestly I’m more likely to be a moody and tempestuous Gryffindor than a calculating Slytherin. But hey, the Sorting Hat judges us on the basis of what we choose, right?)

Who is Harry Potter? You can get the biographical details easily enough. He’s a fanciable Dark Wizard destroyer, who carried the burden of his destiny from a young age. He is a
harry_potter_-_quidditch_hbp_promo_2social media celebrity in the age before social media celebrities, the sort of boy who might have become the star of a Vine or Youtube video made by other people, against his will. Through this relatively innocent character, Rowling explored a magical world that has delighted a host of us, imparted some lessons about good and evil and inspired a wave of fanfiction, some of which (gods forgive me) builds upon her creation so amazingly well that it’s been hailed as better than the original.

But after the initial rush of reading the series, it’s easy to let Harry himself slide. He is, after all, a stand in for the reader more often than not, a relatively empty canvas upon which you can paint yourself and stand in to better observe the people around him. It’s the other characters—Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, SIRIUS— who command my attention as a reader, who make me want to go back to the books again and again and have consumed a majority of my posts. Harry? He sort of slides into the background.

This is obviously a deliberate move on Rowling’s part, to make it easier for people to step into Harry’s shoes and sympathize with his dilemmas. She allows her readers to make Harry a character of their own, to become a part of themselves in an unconscious manner. You might not love Harry as an individual—and god knows I have enough problems with him—but you can’t utterly detest him either. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to read the books.

And Rowling does a brilliant job of making him so utterly believable. I can’t think of another YA/fantasy (not the GRRM variety!) whose hero is as flawed, and yet heroic as Harry. He’s an average sort of boy—he’s okay with his lessons, but Hermione’s always going to be better. He’s great at Quidditch, but even here, he’s aware that there are some people,
harry-potter_original-new-harry-potter-movie-trilogy-announced-jpeg-42959Viktor Krum and Diggory being examples, who are better and always will be better than him. He’s pleasant looking, but he’s no Bill Weasley, able to pull off long ponytails and dragon fang earrings. He’s funny, but he’ll probably never be known for it. He’s not wise in the same manner as Luna, or as successful on his own as Neville. And he’s certainly not half as conventionally popular as his girlfriends—Cho or Ginny.

Even his bravery, the sort of quiet, steady strength that propels him through his quest, is not flashy, not the hijinks of Sirius or Fred and George. What really sets him apart from his fellows is his faith in himself, and his ability to simply push on and, in spite of everything, to trust people. These are not qualities that are sexy, easy to impart. They’re the reason someone like Frodo isn’t the most attractive character in LOTR. Both of them would be dead meat in the world of Westeros, you know, the character most similar being Sansa Stark, and even she’s changing to cope with the big, bad world.

But it’s Harry’s very averageness that makes him a hero, and makes him so much more of a friend than his compatriots in the Potterverse. He is easy to slip into, to see oneself in, and he provides consolation more often than any other character in the series does. It doens’t matter if you’re not the best, not the smartest or most popular. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re wandering mindlessly through a forest, circling around a goal you’ve told yourself you need to complete, that seems, at the moment, impossible. Harry loses his way spectacularly, and then things fall into place by sheer luck, or coincedence, but they fall into place. Being lost is okay, he seems to show us, you’ll pull through it in the end.

HP7-1-FP-0484 
DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 1,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In my 20s, this last has become increasingly important. It’s been a time of some confusion but, as a very very wise person told me, ‘everything passes’. And as long as I, like Harry, have my Rons, Hermiones, my Siriuses and Dumbledores and Lupins, my Molly Weasleys and Nevilles around, things will be okay. The Dark Lords will be defeated, the woods will end, and all will, eventually, be ‘well’.

Meant to Be


destiny_2012_by_saulone-d4xg42vProphecy is a dicey thing. On the one hand, it shapes a narrative, though not always in a way you might expect. It gives a clear end-game to a hero (telling him to defeat a certain someone, like in Harry Potter), it tells people that important councils are happening and they should get to them (Lord of the Rings) or it lays out a bunch of tasks that someone has to accomplish in order to prove themselves worthy of a title/alert the rest of the world to the fact that the mother of all wars is coming (Wheel of Time). The strange thing about it is, even though heroes often really want to know what’s in store for them, if only to figure out how to beat it, once they’ve heard they don’t really know whether it was a good idea to ask for it in the first place.

In ‘real life’, the idea of ‘meant to be’ and ‘destiny’ has a similar double edged appeal. On the one hand, I loath the idea of my life being planned out and written for me by some all-knowing, omnipotent entity. I don’t like the notion of not being able to change things as I see fit, of being condemned, perhaps, to a life that I don’t really like, a job I have no interest in pursuing, simply because something else has decided upon it. On the other, when I think about all the tiny little chances and decisions that led me to a certain place, or person, I realise how easily those meetings and encounters might not have happened. And since that idea is a little terrifying, I like to console myself with the literary palliative: it had to happen, because it was just meant to be.

In the Wheel of Time books, Jordan goes into the ‘ifs’ of a person’s life, creating a device that shows a viewer all the possible decisions he/she might take, and the ramifications of those on the rest of his/her life. It’s a little too much information for anyone to retain, so when characters leave its embrace, they do so with only a ‘vague’ impression. They know enough to recognise warning signs when they see them, to reroute from ‘very bad’ decisions when they come across them, even if they’re not precisely sure why they do it. This is a pretty ingenious way of dealing with the ‘meant to be’/fate conundrum: you know what’s coming enough to guard against it (and some things, he makes it clear, are inevitable), but you can also change things with your decisions, to a certain extent.

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To get into the idea of Fate and Destiny and all that is to open up a huge can of worms and delve into the realms of philosophy, stretching back to the very beginnings of human thought. Thankfully for you and me, I’m not an expert on the debates surrounding free will and predestination (although I do remember the basics, courtesy of doing a paper on Milton’s Paradise Lost a few years ago), so I won’t be rehashing them here. Sufficeth to say that in some ways, believing in destiny is terrifying. In others, when you come across the good things and realize how easily you might not have, it’s very, very comforting.

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.

Photo on 2015-03-17 at 11.18

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.

The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.


arwen 1There are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

arwen and el

There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

Like, what are you saying?

Like, what are you saying?

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that
centuries of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

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.

The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

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Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.