The ‘new’ Hermione Granger-Weasley

A few months ago, when it was announced that Noma Dumezweni, Olivier-award winner and all-around stellar-seeming actress, would be playing Hermione Granger, everybody’s favourite swot in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the fandom went mad. Most people embraced the casting of a black actress, seeing it as an indication that ‘main’ characters in popular fiction need not always be white if not explicitly described as such; a lot of other people got angry and took to the books to point out that what had been done was unconscionable. Myself, I wrote about why this was both welcome (a no-brainer) as well as not entirely out-of-canon (or untrue to Potterverse themes), here.

Everything to do with this play is under microscopic scrutiny though, so no surprise when, a few days ago, the first cast-in-character photos were released and people went crazy again. We got our first glimpse of Dumezweni as Hermione, looking mighty fine in midnight blue. Personally, one look at her convinced me that I would be willing to trust this incarnation of Hermione with my life. Others though, not so happy, citing much the same reasons they had right at the outset. To add fuel to their fire, Hermione and Ron’s daughter, Rose Granger-Weasley, is being played by a black actress (Cherrelle Skeete) as well. The horror! The people of colour are everywhere! It’s an invasion!

granger weasleys

I don’t think we need another post justifying/explaining/laying out how great it is that someone of colour has been cast as an inspiring, iconic character. I know that the casting team of Cursed Child know their job, and don’t need me to lay out why their choice is great. In some ways, I see the rationale behind Priyanka Chopra’s line of thinking, which is, succinctly put, all this race stuff doesn’t matter and we should just give the job to the person who’s best qualified to do it.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where ‘the best person for the role’ is always given the job. As both the backlash and the support for/against Rose and her stage-mother has shown, we don’t live in a ‘post racial’ society. This has the following immediate impact, when it comes to this particular choice of actress(es):

  1. People are angry still angry that someone not white was chosen to play a character portrayed as white in the recent films.
  2. The sight of the new Hermione and Rose made me, as a non-white fan and long-time lover of fantasy, extremely happy.

See, there you have it. If we live in a post-racial world, why would I be particularly thrilled by the sight of Noma in full costume? It should have been normal for me, much as the Wanda_Poster_Cropsight of Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch provoked the response ‘Okay, cool, she looks good.’ Yeah, maybe that’s a bad example; I did not ‘grow up’ reading about the Scarlet Witch, and she is not as high up on my list of favourite fictional characters as Hermione is, nowhere near her level.

But you see what I mean? I’ve never been one of those readers who consciously felt the lack of ‘reflections’ in the literature I read. The colour of someone’s skin didn’t keep me from thinking they were my soul-twin, or that we could be best friends. For instance, the character I most identified with for a long time was Kirsten, one of the American Girls of the series of the same name. I understood, at the age of 8 (when I really got into the series), what it felt like to leave home and friends and come to a new country where I knew nobody, and didn’t really understand the language (only unlike Kirsten, I was leaving a nation of immigrants to come to the ‘old country’, I just didn’t know it). I didn’t feel like I couldn’t empathise with Harry, or Frodo, or Rand or Egwene when I read about them, just because they were male, or white, or both.

Maybe it’s a product of growing older and more aware of context, but now, when I read a book set in a post-apocalyptic future, and it has no non-white people in it, I get a little annoyed. Now when I see a ‘dream cast list’ for a series which I loved, and saw myself in, and it harbours no dark-skinned person, I am a little taken aback. And when I see that  no-nonsense dark-skinned Hermione, I feel a rush of pride and love and omg how amazing are you, woman, that you made me more excited to see this play than even the words ‘by J. K. Rowling’.

Noma-Dumezweni-as-Hermione-Granger-in-New-Cast-of-Harry-potterSo no, I’m not going to justify this choice, I’m not going to explain it to those people who still see the need for explanation. The paradox of our time is that we live in an age where these things shouldn’t have to be explained, which means, such casting choices should ideally be ‘normal’; but even idealistic me knows that it’s not normal, and it’s not because of the haters or the self-appointed keepers of canon, but because I still feel a sense of victory at seeing a black Hermione. I look forward to the day when it’s just another casting announcement, one that I read over in the same manner I read that Brie Larson may be Captain Marvel.

But until that blissful day, I’ll be right over here, squeeing over how bloody wonderful the new Mrs. Granger Weasley looks.

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Fantasies of Hope

On January 3rd, J. R. R. Tolkien turned 126 years old. Since I’m super into current events like this, it got me thinking it had been a while since I watched the Lord of the Rings movies, or read the book—though I did reread The Silmarillion some time last year. It also got me thinking about what an immense contribution Tolkien made to my life, and the larger world of fantasy in general, and why he means as much as he does, today.

I visited Middle Earth in a rather roundabout way. I bought a ticket on a false premise: my mother, who had read the book nearly two decades before she told me about it, tried to sell the story thus. ‘There’s this world, and there are all these races, and there’s a war brewing. And this one guy has to stop the war.’

‘So who is the Lord of the Rings?’ I asked, impressed by this succinct summary.

‘He’s the rightful ruler of the world, but he’s been missing for a long time.’

‘And the guy has to find him and give his ring to him?’

‘Yes.’

If you think about it, this summary actually works, if the ‘guy’ in question is a member of the Nazgul. My mother wrote the first revisionist version of Tolkien’s epic, well before it became fashionable. How hipster.

Anyway, you can imagine that, when I actually read the story, it was completely different, the very opposite. Still, though I had been lured to Middle Earth under false premises, I fell in love with it irrevocably. I found it amazing that someone had actually made this place up, and cared enough about it to make up languages. Not just create them, literally build them, accounting for how languages developed and grew, taking into account things like movement of people and their evolving culture. It was quite spectacular.

Now, a lot of people might think that some aspects of Tolkien’s world and work are incredibly dated. The problematic portrayal of women, race and class are some of the reasons why he’s hauled up by critics, as well as the book’s lack of interest in dealing with real-world-style politics, not the kind Dany and the residents of Westeros have to. But no one can deny that Tolkien gave fantasy a mainstream standing, the sort of status make-believe worlds have in the canon and the marketplace alike. And Tolkien also gave fantasy that element that really distinguishes it, in my opinion, from myth: the gift of hope.

Daenerys-Targaryen-2

Myth and fantasy go hand in hand, yes. Fantasy as a genre borrows a lot from myth, right from the hero’s journey to various monsters and demigods that populate the trove across the world. But where myth is often messy and amoral, fantasy has much clearer vision of what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This is probably because they’re usually more…human, being Elves and Dwarves and magic notwithstanding. Yes, characters are increasingly growing darker and have visible shades of grey, but we still know, for all the loss of light and corruption in Westeros, that something makes the Starks more ‘good’ than many of their counterparts, or elevate Dany’s scenes to the level of ‘epic’. Where fantasy loses the vested
religiosity or belief that may be inherent in myth, it retains its ability to induce awe and adds real-world morals. We can care about the people of Middle Earth or Westeros, or any other fantasy world, because they, like us, adhere to certain unspoken ideas of good and evil. Some of them might ignore those codes, like people in the real world do, but they still exist.

The quality of hope has no better personification than Samwise Gamgee, the faithful hobbit of The Lord of the Rings. Sam is really a nobody; he’s Frodo’s gardener, who literally gets hauled into the adventure because he’s eavesdropping outside the window. He has no illusions about himself, and that’s what enables him to succeed on his quest, even where Frodo falters. He makes a promise to get a job done, and he does it. But unlike Frodo, he doesn’t lose the sense of idealism that he started out with. In fact, he periodically reminds Frodo of why they’re doing the things they’re doing, best exemplified in this line: ‘There’s still some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’

frodo and sam

At every point in a series, there comes a moment when someone or the other remembers something like this, that there is light (or in the case of Wheel of Time, Light) and that’s why people have to continue doing the ‘right thing’. I would argue that the best example of this sort of ‘hope’ in A Song of Ice and Fire is Dany, who has many such epic aha moments (like when she walks into the fire). The ‘good’ in Westeros is much less abstract than it is in Middle Earth or Potterverse, and everyone is chasing their own agenda, but we root for some more than others because their agendas are less obviously evil, even taking into account the cruel context.

Sam is surprisingly perceptive, and his ability to not just push through, but remain uncorrupted, is one that not many heroes, not even kid hero Harry, can boast of. I’d argue that there’s a bit of him in all of us. ‘There’s some good in this world’ is a surprisingly simple but effective slogan, and honestly, the only way, sometimes, to get through the day.

So here’s to being more like Samwise in 2016.

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.

Keep on Keeping On

Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.

Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.

Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.

What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator.  The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills. frodo and sam

Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.

harry deathlyThe same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.

I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.

And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.

That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.

Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.

How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?

It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.

Ginny Weasley and the Loving Hero Paradox

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

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

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

Hey, I just realized Ginny uses his name too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am so glad she proved him wrong.

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

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

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.

Darken her skin for me!

I don’t know why, but I always thought of Egwene al’Vere (from the Wheel of Time series) as dark-skinned. Perrin too, despite a great deal of fan art that would argue otherwise. When people are described as ‘dark-haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’, I suppose the postcolonial in me automatically jumps to the conclusion that hey, here’s a (western) fantasy character I could impersonate!

It was such a taken for granted thing for me–that Egwene is dark-skinned. I was so convinced of this (for no apparent reason, except for the aforementioned ‘dark haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’ thing), that I was surprised, shocked even when people exclusively mentioned white actresses when they filled out their fantasy cast lists for a Wheel of Time movie. When I searched ‘Egwene al’Vere’ in the Google image search, I found no artwork that depicted her as brown skinned either. I wondered if I was just delusional, if I had missed something in Jordan’s descriptions.

But when I went back and checked, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything. Yes, Rand and Mat both have hair and eye colouring that is typically associated with white skin, but Egwene, Perrin, Min and Nynaeve’s ‘dark hair’ and ‘dark eyes’ could belong to someone of a darker hue. I suppose this was my subtle response to the ‘white until proven otherwise’ rule that governs much of mainstream (Western) fantasy–I refused to bow down to it. Unconsciously.

Which is, I guess, really the best way to do it.

Does my thinking of Egwene as not white matter a great deal? Not really–I don’t think it changes the way I view her, or Perrin, or Min for that matter. All it did really was give me hope that I could play her if and when a movie series or a miniseries based on the books made it to production. After all, I missed my chance to waltz around with Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Goblet of Fire’. I’ve never quite forgiven my parents for not buying me a ticket to London the minute auditions for Parvati and Padma Patil were announced. The resentment has become a cornerstone of my self-actualization or lack thereof.

But is Egwene being coloured a political statement? Would it mean anything if she were? That’s a question to keep in mind when next you read the Wheel of Time.

My heroine

Last night my internet refused to work. I pondered skiving off writing a piece , but then realized that it would be the easiest thing to do. Taking the easiest course is not something that this particular character ever contemplates, however, so I figured it would only be keeping in the spirit of things if I shook myself, hurled away those thoughts of relaxing with a bowl of chips and salsa and instead, plunged straight into a hard-hitting piece on the wonder that is….

Egwene al’Vere.

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Egwene and I had a love-hate relationship for a long time. I tend to dislike on principle the girl paired with the hero in any fantasy story—hence my dislike of Cho Chang (I was twelve when I read about Harry’s stirrings of interest in her during a Quidditch match, and knew immediately that this girl was a ‘threat’), Ginny Weasley (in my defence, I am not alone in this), Elayne Trakand (again, I don’t need to justify myself) and Min (she was cool to start off with, then quickly became all about Rand). I think this is something to do with my own burgeoning love/crush on the hero, and my identification of this female as a rival, no matter how silly and psychotic that sounds. It goes to show how deeply the women-beware-women trait has been ingrained in me, that I look upon a character in a fantasy story as a rival out to steal what should be ‘mine’.

Of course, it is a whole other level of neurotic that I look upon the male characters as people to be ‘had’ or romantically inclined towards in the first place.

Another, slightly more generous explanation for my dislike of these characters could be my fear, often justified, that they would lose all individuality and importance as anything other than the hero’s girlfriend. Look what happened to Ginny in the Potterverse- here we had this young, shy girl blossom into a hotshot Quidditch player who then did nothing but ‘snog’ Harry. Another example is outlined in my previous post on Nymphadora Tonks (from the same universe), where a promising character got turned into a baby producing device, lopped off from further growth in her own right. Perhaps I feared that Egwene would suffer the same fate.

Thankfully, I was proved wrong. Not only did Egwene not turn out to be Rand’s ultimate flame, but she laid to rest any fears of becoming little more than a romantic interest for any character. In fact, she turns the tables, with her own consort wondering if he has any role besides being there for her.

(It is partly this inability to remain in her shadow that drives Gawyn on the suicidal mission to destroy Demandred, a mission that results, ultimately in Egwene’s own death. Some things just don’t change, no matter how fantastical the world.)

Why did I choose Egwene to be the standard-bearer of my ‘Women in Fantasy’ series? Quite simply because she has had the farthest to go from all those I have on my little list—not only does she achieve the most, rising from a village girl with ‘unbraided’ hair to position of most powerful woman in the world, but she has changed me, changed my perspective on her through the course of fourteen books in ten years. To put it succinctly, I have had the longest and most involved, emotionally charged relationship with her that I have had with any female fantasy character. I started out disliking her intensely, being annoyed with her and gradually came to grudgingly admire her, until I can finally say with complete honesty that she is my favourite character.

Right after Lanfear, but really, I wouldn’t want to be friends with that one. I feel like Egwene and I have had a relationship and grown together. There’s a difference between liking a character for the entertainment value she affords (Lanfear) and liking her as a person and wanting to be like her. That’s how I feel about Egwene.

Whether its her resourcefulness, her courage under fire, her compassion coupled with professionalism or her endearing lapses into classic twenty-something-ness, Egwene is a woman who has made her way steadily in hard circumstances, and won her place at the top. What I really like about her is this tenacity in her beliefs, her knowledge that she can make things better, that she can push herself and succeed against all odds. She never doubts herself,  except for a brief, horrific period early on in the series when she is captured by the Seanchan. This remains a traumatic point for her, and she revisits is constantly in nightmares and revenge scenarios, but ultimately, she overcomes even her debilitating fear of the a’dam and manages to move past it through sheer will.

Egwene is told often that she is ‘stubborn’, a sure match for Rand. She is the only one who has the determination and the courage to face him down, to disagree with him when she finds his plans unsatisfactory. She refuses to let his greater power or vaunted status daunt her, and she is the only one in hall full of usually collected people who manages to keep a clear head when addressing the Dragon Reborn. Surely that says volumes about her faith in herself, even if nothing else does.

As a young woman, Egwene gets her fair share of patronization. She is practically bullied into accepting a position of power, used as a puppet for a time and has to do a fair bit of manipulating and intimidating to ensure that her followers take her seriously as a leader. She makes mistakes, for sure, as any newbie would in her position. Despite her strong views against it, she keeps a woman in slavery, much as it makes her mouth curl with distaste. She treads on toes, makes faux pas and generally tries a bit too hard. But here, I had to sympathize with her. It can’t be easy trying to head a bunch of women, most of whom are centuries older than you and certain that they know best how things should be run. She stumbles, yes, but the important thing is that she rights herself and moves along a path of her own making; she doesn’t just stride smoothly onto a road laid out for her.

I think this, finally, is Egwene’s most important quality, and why I look up to her the way I do. She believes in facing the world head on, looking into the eyes of those who would try to choose a path for her and telling them firmly and clearly, no. She makes her decisions and stands by them; she is not afraid to forge ahead even when all ahead of her seems dark and dreary; she trusts herself far more than she trusts or depends upon the world around her. Egwene exemplifies the power of self belief, the power that rests in the ability to pick yourself up after the world has knocked you down and to just keep on going. She performs the power of the words ‘never give up’ .

So when I find myself wondering what the point of it all is, whether there is any hope of things ever changing for the better in this fear and grime riddled world, I look to her for inspiration. And I always, always find it.

To the strength of self confidence, determination and courage in the face of darkness. To Robert Jordan’s Egwene al’Vere. You are my heroine.

An Ending

They say there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.

But there is an ending.

And what an ending it is/was/will be.

(Warning, there do be spoilers here.)

The Wheel of Time series has been, for me, many things. Best friend in the annals of high school loneliness, support in times of college strife and romantic misadventure, steady backbone of fantastic escape when all I wanted was to switch off and disappear from a mundane, workaday existence of assignments and term papers and weekly tutorials. It has seen me grow from a self-assured fourteen year old to a less-self assured twenty-three year old, from high school to a first job. It arrived shortly after my first foray into Middle Earth, and like Middle Earth, it stuck by me, and shaped me in ways that I don’t yet comprehend.

Maybe a re-read would settle those questions. Hey, any excuse works!

Given its importance in my life, reading ‘A Memory of Light’, the last book, has been a very, well, emotional experience. Not only would I constantly find myself thanking the team at Tor and Brandon Sanderson for taking up Jordan’s heavy mantle with such spirit and enthusiasm, but there were times when I had to force myself to stop reading, so that I could have one more day with this universe. I didn’t want to let go.

Jordan and Sanderson have really outdone themselves in this last book. Each of the characters shone, even the ones I had disliked (or been irritated by) in previous novels. Elayne was such a brilliant Queen, an inspiring figure that I couldn’t help but admire as she rallied her troops and gave Aragorn-like speeches in the face of certain destruction. Min finally found herself, it seemed, and stepped out of Rand’s shadow, coming into a role of her own in her office as ‘Doomseer’. Aviendha, that wonderful woman, blazed in battle, a fount of determination and strength that I am sure I will look to when I feel weak and lost myself. Nynaeve, though less vocal here than in the earlier books, stood solid and steadfast to the end.

But all of them, every single character, male or female, paled beside the one who has been steadily stealing my heart for the last seven books. The one who would not be bowed, though pressed time and time again. The one who does not, and never will know the meaning of the words ‘give up’. Honestly, I think she outshone Rand, the Dragon Reborn.

Egwene al’Vere was amazing. The immature girl who left the Two Rivers grew to hero status steadily in the course of the books, and she exited in a beautiful storm. I don’t think I’ve seen a better or more affecting death-scene in a fantasy novel. She’s risen above the rest, in my estimation, on a crystal column woven of Light, a heroine for Ages to come.

If I were to sit and discuss every character, I suspect this review would become entirely too long. So I’ll save my thoughts for a later day, and do each of them justice in individual posts. Let’s turn to more pedestrian, less emotionally charged aspects now.

‘A Memory of Light’ proceeds smoothly from the night before the grand meeting at the Field of Merrilor to the close of the Last Battle, when Rand’s body is cremated before Shayol Ghul. We get glimpses of old, familiar faces- Hurin, Juilin, Haral Luhhan, Ila the Tinker- as well as longer, more sustained rendezvous with characters like Tam al’Thor, Lan, Faile, even the until-now elusive Demandred. The central characters of course dominate the book- Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Rand. Each of their stories is followed with attention and detail, and you can see how much Jordan, and by extension, Sanderson have loved and invested in these people’s lives.

It was heartening to see that the Shadow did have a plot, that it stood a good chance of winning, and wasn’t bested simply by the luck of the protagonists or the will of the author. I know its unfair to compare, say, Demandred to Lord Voldemort, but if only Voldemort had had some of the former’s brains and planning ability, the conclusion to Harry Potter might not have been as anticlimactic as it was. Here, the Light won on its own strength. It was a good victory, precisely because it came so hard.

The ‘true battle’ that took place in the bowels of Shayol Ghul, I’m still wrapping my head around it. At least, around its fall-out. I know people have been predicting the ‘body swap’ for ages, but I’m still a little confused on how it happened. I suppose a re-read will help sort that out. It is ironic that Moridin was forced to help seal the Light’s victory, a tongue-in-cheek manoeuvre to show that yes, no matter how long someone walks in the shadow, he can turn back to the light. Even if against his will.

I didn’t care much for how the Black Tower plotline was concluded, but it was one small smidgeon on an otherwise ‘exquisite’ canvas. Jordan has left just enough open doors for his readers’ imaginations to run wild, to wonder what happens now. Will the Aiel be safe from the doom Aviendha and Bair saw for them? Will the Seanchan chain of command collapse after the revelations that Egeanin and Min will bring to light concerning the damane and sul’dam? Will Perrin and Faile move to Saldaea, or stay in the Two Rivers and govern from afar? Will Olver really dispose of the Horn?

I’m sure someone will pick over these questions, in forums, in fan fiction, in theory blogs. But right now, all I want to do if find the ‘Eye of the World’ again, return to a time when Rand, Mat and Perrin were young and innocent and thought Baerlon was a big city. I want to follow them through their adventures once again, secure in the knowledge that no matter how dark the moment seems, they will be all right, nay, more than all right at the end.

It will not be the beginning, there are neither beginnings nor endings to the reading of ‘The Wheel of Time’.

But it will be a beginning.

 

Halfway through the Memory

I am halfway through the final book of the Wheel of Time series.

Wait, let me process that.

I am halfway through the FINAL BOOK of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading this series since my fourteenth birthday. I can remember exactly where I was when I finished the Prologue to ‘The Eye of the World’. I remember the heady feeling of wonder and sheer energy that zinged through me when I finished the first book, and clamoured for the second. I was lucky, I didn’t have to wait interminably between books, at least until the eleventh (‘The Knife of Dreams’) came out.

I wrote this review for a paper shortly after I read the first book. The series was by no means new, but I didn’t think it was well-known enough in India, and wanted to do my bit.

After that, I was relegated to the read-and-find-out-in-a-few-years band of fans, some of whom had been reading the series since it first came out in 1991. I did what a lot of others did, to stanch that longing for more Randland. I joined a forum.

The first website that claimed my allegiance was wotmania. I joined in discussions, speculations, started a few myself, made friends on the forums, read their fanfiction (and, in turn, sicced my own on them), chatted with fellows in faraway Norway, and learned much about people in other countries, as well as, of course, people in other, fantasy universes.

Wotmania closed down, and then I shifted my attention to dragonmount.com. I have not been as personally involved on dragonmount as I was on wotmania, preferring to lurk and listen to other people’s discussions than step in myself. I have loved my time there however, and intend to linger on post apocalyptic Tarmon Gai’don.

Being part of this series, in the small way I have, has been an amazing experience. Whether it was waiting to see what the moderator would present us on Fan Art Friday (she would trawl the internet and present, each week, different artists’ versions of events, places or characters from the WOT universe), reading Mashiara Sedai’s theories on ‘WOT if…’, taking part in polls on the forum, discussing the nitty gritties of channeling, politics, damane or defending my indefensible crush on Demandred, super cloaked super-villain, I have loved every moment of it.

I can’t believe it’s going to end, in a small way. There are no more Wheel of Time books after this.

I guess I’ll deal with the creeping grief at the close, when the battle’s lost or won, when the hurlyburly’s done.

Till then, onward with Tarmon Gai’don!