Category Archives: course readings

On Reading The Lord of the Rings, Parte the Seconde

In my Tolkien class, we’ve had a week and a half of background material: an introductory lecture on Tolkien and fantasy, a walk-through of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and a lecture on The Hobbit. This Tuesday we finally get into the thing itself as we read the first five chapters of Fellowship, and I’ll likely have something to say about that. But for the time being, here’s one more self-indulgent reminiscence about my relationship with Tolkien’s fiction.

ring_edited-2 In the fourth year of my B.A. I took a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Seeing that course listed in the York University calendar made me vaguely light-headed, and filled with the dread certainty that I’d never get into the class—surely everyone in the known world (and possibly worlds unknown) would be clamoring for a spot. But I was fortunate: that summer I had an enlistment window very early, and for the first time in my undergraduate career was able to get precisely the schedule I wanted.

The Lewis & Tolkien class was in the winter term, and as it approached I started to feel a slight gnawing unease. I had not picked up either the Narnia novels of The Lord of the Rings since high school; in the three and a half years of my undergrad that had passed, my reading habits, my critical acumen, my preferences and proclivities had all changed—in some cases dramatically. That sort of thing is the bittersweet dimension of a humanities education: if it takes root, if you genuinely learn from your classes and professors and peers, it changes the way you think (which is why I will always champion the value of the humanities). In its most superficial effects, it can teach you to be embarrassed by texts you previously enjoyed, whether they be the novels of Stephen King, or television, or romantic comedies, because you feel (without truly believing) that such texts aren’t worthwhile … but that is mere posturing. More invidious is when those past loves start to seem … well, childish. Or less satisfying or revelatory as you once believed, as your reading and/or viewing sophistication has grown, or simply because you have matured a great deal—to the point where Holden Caulfield no longer speaks fundamental truths but simply comes across to you as an obnoxiously angsty teen.

All this is by way of saying: I was afraid this would be my experience with Tolkien. Would I read LotR and suddenly see its escapism and childishness, its sexism and racism and Kipling-esque imperialist arrogance? A fairly large number of books I had loved when I was younger had so fallen in my estimation with the onslaught of pretentious twenty-something bookishness (some, but not all, have been recuperated as I got older). Would this happen, I worried, with The Lord of the Rings? I was genuinely anxious, for I didn’t think I could deal with it if the novel that had essentially been a defining experience for me—that had, for all intents and purposes, turned me into a student of literature long before I was aware of it—if that novel suddenly appeared to me somehow deficient, or less than I had always felt it to be. I knew instinctively how devastating that would be.

I needn’t have worried. I had decided in advance not to reread LotR in depth, but to skim—I still remembered the novel like the back of my hand, and given what felt at the time like an unreasonable amount of reading for all my classes it seemed not a bad idea to alleviate that load where I could. And in truth, I also felt that if I just skimmed I could avoid the pitfalls of whatever my three and a half years of university English had primed me to see.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Almost as soon as I started reading, I was sucked back into Middle-Earth. As I had not opened the book in about four years—when I had reread it multiple times between grade seven and the end of high school—the story, the characters, the words were like a favourite meal that has long been unavailable, which one tastes again as if for the first time.

And how did I react to the novel, after my three and a half years of literary-critical indoctrination? I had been worried that LotR would suffer the fate of other novels I could no longer take seriously; but if anything, I found I had a far deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s art and craft. Sure, a few things now seemed almost unbearably hokey—most notably, the overly formal greeting and addresses (such phrasings as “What ho, Legolas!” were vaguely cringeworthy)—but the richness of the prose, the compelling story, the complex characters, the moral and ethical drama, and above all the masterful act of creation that Tolkien had engaged in, all quite frankly took my breath away in a manner that had been simply impossible for my twelve-year-old self. I was depressed when I first finished reading LotR way back when because I knew I could never again read it for the first time; reading it after a lengthy absence from it and after I had truly learned to read (or had started to learn, anyway) was about as close as I could come to actually reading it again for the first time.

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When I bought my books for that winter term, it was necessary to buy a new copy of LotR. The original copy which my mother had skeptically bought for me was pretty much in tatters. Incessant re-readings over the course of seven years had given the book’s thick spine a deep concavity; the writing on the spine was itself all but illegible from all the creases, scars bestowed by me folding the book open. The front cover had long ago fallen off, and required frequent re-applications of scotch tape to hold it on. The title pages inside, along with about half of the prologue, were long gone, and many of the pages in the middle of the book and become unglued, sticking out from their fellows like errant bookmarks. The quality of the paper itself had degraded, becoming brittle and easily torn at the corners and edges where it had been assaulted by my fingers.

I cannot remember what happened to that copy. I assume I threw it out; I’ve never really been sentimental about individual copies of books—I’m not the kind of person who refrains from cracking spines or who gets irate or anxious about dog-eared pages—but I wish I’d held onto that particular artifact. I would never read it again, to be certain (it would have completely fallen apart back then, never mind today), but it would be nice to still have it as a keepsake.

The edition I bought for that class was identical but for the colour of the cover, which was white. It has weathered the years somewhat better, for the simple reason that it hasn’t been as incessantly re-read as its predecessor. Still, the front cover also fell off, necessitating the same scotch-tape repair. When I ordered books for this term’s course, I had to decide whether to opt for the one-volume edition (now available with handsome red and significantly sturdier covers), or for one of the many, many three-volume editions out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose the single-volume edition for sentimental reasons … knowing that, whatever I chose, it was a good bet the university bookstore would not be making much money off my course, as a significant number of my students probably had their own well-thumbed copies.

Because I am both sentimental and a dork, I took a picture of my desk copy beside my somewhat more battered old copy. If only my original copy was still around to complete the set …

making friends

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On first coming to The Lord of the Rings, Parte the Firste

The Lord of the Rings is one of those books that is a deeply personal, deeply significant text for me. For all my excitement about the fact that I get to teach a course devoted to it, I am also rather anxious—it has been my experience that those texts you love above all others can also be the most difficult ones to teach. For one thing, you tend to know them so well that it is easy to jump enthusiastically all through them, forgetting that your students don’t have the same facility with them. For another thing, that same enthusiasm makes it easy to go off script and confuse your students with your “oh, and there’s this cool thing here too!” impromptu riffs. And perhaps worst of all, it can be deeply depressing when your students don’t share your love. There’s really nothing worse than looking around, as you geek out about how awesome this novel/play/poem/film is, and see a sea of indifferent faces.

I have had variations of this happen to me in the past when teaching, among other things, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Crying of Lot 49, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Dr. Strangelove, and Neuromancer. Considering the general enthusiasm of my LotR class for Tolkien, I am hopeful to avoid at least the third pitfall. But I’m still anxious.

All that is just apropos of introducing my next Return to Middle-Earth installment, which was the title of this post suggests, is something of a self-indulgent memory of first coming to read Tolkien. Even better: it’s the first part of two!

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When I was nine years old or so, my aunt bought me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis for Christmas (or possibly my birthday—if the latter, I was just turning ten). As much as I loved reading, I did not immediately get into them. I was a devotee of Hardy Boys novels and anything on sharks or WWII that I could get out of the school library, but had not yet felt the attraction to fantasy. I did make a few attempts at The Magician’s Nephew, but never quite got into it. I wish I had known then that it wasn’t necessary to read that one first, that C.S. Lewis had in fact written it sixth; had I started with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I think I might have gotten into the series much sooner.

(If I can make an aside here as a much-belated thanks to my aunt: I remember getting that collection of books, and I remember being unenthused at the time. However much I might have loved reading, books were never what I wanted as Christmas or birthday gifts, not unless they had a lot of big, glossy photographs of fighter jets or sharks. So my muted thanks were probably less than gratifying to my aunt, but her choice of gift has been vindicated. This was very much on my mind this past Christmas, as one of my gifts to my niece Morgan was Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book Fortunately, The Milk—a brilliant tale of time-traveling dinosaurs, pirates, aliens, and volcano-gods named Splod—and which I knew would not be appreciated amidst even the other gifts I’d given her, never mind the cornucopia of stuff from everyone else. But I hope it takes root in the months and years to come, much as my aunt’s gift of Narnia did for me. So: thank you, Aunt Carolyn. If I was less then enthused then, I have built up slightly more than thirty years of enthusiasm since).

I wish I could remember the moment that Narnia first came alive for me. I feel like I should, but there is only a vague gap between being unimpressed with The Magician’s Nephew and every single book in that collection being (barely) held together with scotch tape. I also started writing, then, stories that, like Lewis’, involved children from this world having adventures in a fantasy world they blundered or were drawn into. Mostly they featured me and my friends from school.

As all children of a certain age do, I talked endlessly about what fascinated me, and at this point it was all Narnia all the time. Normally, of course, adults listening to such disquisitions tend to have their eyes gloss over, and just nod vaguely until they can politely change the subject or walk away (something I encountered later in life with unwary people who asked me “Oh, so what’s your dissertation about?”). So it was weirdly disconcerting to have one of my father’s friends, a neighbor from across the street, actually listen and ask pointed questions about what I liked about C.S. Lewis. The conversation then took this turn:

ME: So, you like the Narnia books?
HIM: (shrugs) Yeah, they’re OK.
ME: (vaguely offended) They’re “OK”?
HIM: Oh, don’t get me wrong. They’re good. But Lewis is no Tolkien.
ME: What’s … a Tolkien?
HIM: (laughs knowingly) Kid, if you like Narnia, you will love The Lord of the Rings.

He then loaned me, not LotR proper, but a children’s-book version with images from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film. “See if you like this,” my dad’s friend said, “because the actual novel’s pretty long.” To this day I don’t know why he didn’t just recommend I read The Hobbit—the existence of which I only learned about when I was about halfway through LotR—but the upshot is that my first experience of the story was infused with late-1970s fantasy art. A few examples:

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The hobbits. Not actually all that different from what we got in the films.

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The Black Rider threatening the hidden hobbits. Even closer to what we saw in the film.

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Legolas. It impresses me that the animated Legolas makes Orlando Bloom’s version look like Rambo by comparison. Also, fun fact: the actor who voiced Legolas in the animated film was Anthony Daniels, aka C3P0. Seriously.

aragorn animated

And this is Aragorn. Until Viggo Mortensen totally owned this role, I had this image of the scion of Gondor as looking vaguely like Chief Bromden.

The film was designed to be the first of two, but the second (to the best of my knowledge) never got made, so the storybook ended with Gollum about to lead Sam and Frodo through the secret entrance to Mordor that proved to be Shelob’s lair.

One way or another, the story captivated me. Not long afterwards, I was out with my mother as she ran errands. We stopped at the local mall for a few things, and went to the W.H. Smith (a bookstore I ended up working at for the better part of my high school years). I always loved our outings when we stopped at the bookstore, because I was allowed to choose a book that Mom would buy for me. I was perusing the SF section when a great, huge, black brick of a book caught my eye.

l_lord_rings_paperback_1983Without thinking, I grabbed it and took it up to where my mother waited by the cash. She looked dubiously at the book, and then at me, obviously more than a little skeptical. “Will you actually read that?” I nodded. “Do you promise?” Again, I nodded.

I don’t think I convinced her, but she bought me the book anyway, even though it was about three times the price of the paperbacks I normally got. Now that is maternal love and faith.

That was late spring of 1984. I finished it some time in early autumn, having spent the better part of the summer engrossed in it. I have few memories of where I was when reading it, except for two. That summer I went to a friend of my parents’ cottage with my father, brother, and a friend of mine from school. On the drive home, it was a sunny, sultry summer day; my friend was listening to his walkman and dozing, but I was in the midst of the battle of Helm’s Deep. Even now when I reread those sections—even, bizarrely, when I watch those sequences in the film of The Two Towers—I have a vivid sense-memory of hot summer air buffeting through open car windows, the smell of dust and asphalt and pine trees, the vague memory of those trees as a green blur outside the car windows, and the incessant sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival, which was my father’s choice for that summer’s road trip soundtrack.

My second memory was reading the last line of the final chapter. It was autumn, and I was in my room. Sam Gamgee returned from seeing Frodo off at the Grey Havens, and sadly walked into Bag End. He sat down, settled his daughter into his lap, and sighed to his wife, “Well, I’m back.”

Before I go on, I just want to say: as much as I loved the LotR films, I will never forgive Peter Jackson for not ending on that specific note. He came so damn close: Sam walking down the lane to Bag End, his daughter coming out to greet him, a happy/sad moment with his whole family by the door … I suppose I am being picky, because he got the spirit of the moment exactly right. I was just rotted that he didn’t give the emotional punch I was waiting for with the words.

“Well, I’m back.” Wow, was I miserable for at least two weeks after that. And then even more miserable after I found my way to the chronology in LotR’s appendices, which as I discovered did not merely recount the events leading up to the novel and then the events of the novel itself, but the next one hundred and twenty years or so after the end, in which we learn about the golden reign of King Elessar and the prosperous lives led by Merry, Pippin, and Sam in the Shire. And then I came to this last entry:

In this year on March 1st came at last the passing of King Elessar. It is said that the beds of Meriadoc and Peregrin were set beside the bed of the great king. The Legolas built a ship in Ithilien, and sailed down the Anduin and so over Sea; and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf. And when that ship passed an end was come in Middle-Earth of the Fellowship of the Ring.

I kid you not: writing this passage out, I am tearing up.

Not quite thirty years ago when I read this passage for the first time, I was devastated. Because I knew that, however much I might reread this extraordinary novel, I would never again read it for the first time. I suspect that anyone who is an inveterate reader like me can point to an experience like this: a moment in which your experience of a story knocks something loose inside you and you feel yourself somehow change. I don’t think there is a word for it, because it isn’t the same thing as the experience of the sublime (though it can have sublime elements). It’s more as if the borders of who you are and what you know expand, and expand shockingly enough that it is actually felt, almost physically, rather than sensed.

If anyone reading this post wants to respond: what story changed your world? And why?

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That is all for now. Up next: part two of my LotR reading experience, and some thoughts on The Silmarillion.

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On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and why Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson

I started my Tolkien course last Thursday, and have been hip-deep in cobbling together my lectures for upcoming classes. I’m not sure how much lecture material will surface on this blog; some, certainly, but mostly what I’m thinking here is personal recollections of reading LotR and subjective reactions to my current re-reading. That being said, I’m doing a lecture this week on The Hobbit as preface to getting into LotR proper; and while I’ll spare you, gentle reader, my pedantry on how The Hobbit fits into the Tolkien mythos, I have been pecking away at a review of The Desolation of Smaug since I went to see it a few weeks ago. It is not, perhaps, how I wanted to kick off my Return to Middle-Earth posts, but it’s the one that I have done.

Also: spoilers.

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It possibly seems, if not counter-intuitive, then possibly a little pedantic to criticize fantasy for willfully ignoring the laws of physics. Come on, you might say: we’re talking about an alternative reality in which magic, dragons, goblins, wizards, immortal elves, and giant talking spiders exist. Surely in such a context, anything goes?

Well, no. Not at all, really … and when Thorin Oakenshield rides a wheelbarrow down a river of molten metal in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain, the fact that he was doing so to escape a fire-breathing dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t prevent my hackles from going up. You see, Thorin was more or less prone in the wheelbarrow, lying on his belly, and did not seem to suffer at all from the raging heat a few inches on the other side of the vessel. Even granting the possibility that Middle-Earth’s dwarves have developed building materials with the heat-protection qualities of uber-asbestos, such close proximity to molten metal would certainly roast one’s lungs and eyeballs and raise a few blisters.

hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-barrel-rapids

I was similarly irked by Peter Jackson’s revision of the barrel-riding sequence, in which the dwarves and Bilbo escape from the wood-elves in empty wine barrels. In the novel, they are sealed inside. In the film, they ride them as if they were little boats, plunging over waterfalls and through surging rapids, and not only do none of them get swamped or flipped or simply sunk, but apparently the barrels are stable enough for our old friend Legolas to leap into the middle of the stream and balance with each of his feet on the head of a dwarf while he shoots arrows at pursuing orcs … and then jump straight up, turn around in mid-air, and land again on the annoyed dwarves so he can shoot in the other direction.

Granted, we’re familiar with Legolas’ acrobatics in The Lord of the Rings, whether he’s riding a shield down a set of stairs or sliding down a massive elephant’s trunk (again, shooting arrows all the while). But this film takes even his nimbleness to absurd levels.

legolasAs I watched The Desolation of Smaug, I had the same thought I had with An Unexpected Journey: that Peter Jackson really needs someone on his team to say “Um, perhaps that’s a little much?” Actually, I suspect he does have people like that … perhaps he just has to listen to them. It’s sort of like when Kenneth Branagh first started making films: Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were both extremely well done, and while they approached the line between restraint and excess, they both held back … just barely, perhaps, but they held back. My theory is that Emma Thompson was his voice of reason, because after they split, he did not just cross that line but pole-vaulted it.

Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson.

Like Branagh, Jackson seems always to want to err on the side of excess, and he has an unfortunate tendency toward slapstick (poor Gimli). For whatever reason, he showed considerable restraint in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had no way of knowing he had showed restraint until I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film in which all of his unfortunate tendencies were on display: the film was dilatory to the point of being tedious, frequently glib and silly, and … the slapstick. Oh, the slapstick. Whether it was the unfortunately expanded role of Radagast the Brown or the comic turn of the Great Goblin (voiced by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna), there weren’t very many moments where Jackson resisted the temptation for physical humour.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYNow, one protest that could be made here is that this is merely in keeping with the source material: The Hobbit is an eminently silly novel, and indeed slapstick plays a significant role in some of what might otherwise be terrifying scenes. The trolls’ working-class yob dialogue, for example, or the goblins’ hysterical reaction to Gandalf and Thorin’s swords, which ultimately reminds me of nothing other than a manic Benny Hill skit. Ditto for the encounter with the giant spiders, whose natural menace is mitigated by the fact that, like the trolls, they talk like bumbling and hapless Cockney comic villains. With this in mind, it raises the question: in making these films deliberately sillier, isn’t Peter Jackson simply being more faithful to the novel?

Well, yes and no … one of the shrewd things about the way in which J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series is the way in which the novels mature along with Harry (and, as Rowling has said, her ideal reader, who starts the series at age eleven). But in so doing she introduces comic elements in The Philosopher’s Stone—such as the wizarding world’s complete bafflement with Muggle science, technology, and fashion—that are entirely at home in a children’s novel but which become increasingly incongruous as the novels grown more expansive, more complex, and more serious. In The Philosopher’s Stone we laugh at wizards’ confusion about wearing polka dots with stripes, but by The Half-Blood Prince, it strains credulity that Arthur Weasley’s dearest wish is to learn how airplanes stay aloft (if he really is as obsessed with Muggle technology as the books make him out to be, it would not be a difficult thing to figure out—Ask Hermione! is what I always yell).

the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-landscapeThere is a similar shift in voice between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The former is a children’s novel through and through; the latter, entirely not. How does Tolkien manage this shift? Well, he cheats: as the old saying goes, The Lord of the Rings puts aside childish things (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding). The Cockney trolls of The Hobbit lose their comic accents, and indeed their voices entire, becoming little more than massive, fearsome beasts; the Benny Hill-esque goblins become terrifying orcs; and the hapless spiders of Mirkwood become Shelob, who remains one of the most terrifying creations I have encountered in fantasy fiction. The first five chapters are transitional, still evincing the general tone and voice of The Hobbit, but once they get to Bree and encounter Strider, the hobbits leave The Hobbit behind for good.

I had wondered how the Hobbit films were going to negotiate this shift in tone; two films in, the answer seems to be: unevenly. Though as I’ve hinted, this unevenness can be at least partially blamed on Jackson’s slapstick tendencies. There is nevertheless the occasional irruption of The Hobbit’s more childish nature—less on display in Smaug, but present nonetheless.

Am I perhaps being unfair? The Hobbit, you might protest, is in fact a children’s novel, and we should not be surprised when its original spirit shows though. Which, I suppose, poses the question: could a film of The Hobbit have in fact been made that was faithful to the tone and spirit of the novel? I’ve mulled this question over, and my answer has to be no—not now, not after Peter Jackson essentially defined Tolkien cinematically. The problem with these Hobbit films is precisely that they must needs provide continuity with The Lord of the Rings—which is to say, we cannot but watch The Hobbit retroactively, with all of the grand sweep of Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth in our minds. Tolkien’s novel, despite all of the distance traveled by Bilbo, provides a very narrow perspective on Middle-Earth: not just in terms of geography, but also history. The Lord of the Rings expands outwards in space and backwards in time almost exponentially. Tolkien did a lot to square up his epic with the substance of his children’s book, and vice versa: he produced a revised edition of The Hobbit in 1947 while he was midway through LotR. He also included material in his appendices to The Lord of the Rings and in Unfinished Tales that supplemented the story of The Hobbit in such a way as to fold it into the broader sweep of Middle-Earth’s history.

It was this supplementary narrative that initially made me cautiously optimistic about Jackson’s overt intention to transform the 350 page Hobbit into a cinematic epic on par with the 1000+ page Lord of the Rings—cautious optimism admittedly fueled by my Tolkien-geek desire to actually see the battle between the White Council and the Necromancer, and all the arguments leading up to it. And indeed, one of the scenes I enjoyed in Smaug was Gandalf’s “chance” meeting with Thorin in Bree, wherein he first proposes the plan to reclaim Erebor from the dragon.

But even so: there simply isn’t enough supplemental material in Tolkien’s paratexts to turn The Hobbit into three three-hour epics, and both films so far have felt excruciatingly long. Again, Jackson errs on the side of excess: the final forty-five minutes of Smaug is like every single overly-long chase scene in every movie you’ve ever seen stitched together and played end to end. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating … but honestly, that is what it felt like.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that these films could have been so good, had Jackson exhibited something resembling restraint. There are gem-like moments, many of them simply sublime shots of the New Zealand-cum-Middle Earth landscape. But the casting is also (mostly) lovely: Martin Freeman was an inspired choice for Bilbo, and he labours heroically; I will watch Ian McKellen in literally anything; and if the best part of the first film was the riddle in the dark sequence between Gollum and Bilbo, Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug is very nearly as good. Fans of Sherlock like myself will love the Cumberbatch/Freeman verbal jousting, and it was also a fantastic example of when CGI can work wonders: the entire film is practically worth the price of admission to see Smaug’s lip curl in a sneer.

dragon1Such a shame they ruined it with the protracted chase sequence.

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Welcome 2014, or, My semester of geeking out

Happy New Year, everyone! This blog has been on a quasi-hiatus since mid-December, as I recovered from the term and enjoyed the holidays at my parents’ house in Uxbridge, Ontario—which miraculously escaped the ice-storm-induced power outages while providing such scenery as the ice-encrusted tree in the front yard:

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But then, as if in karmic retribution for my cozy sojourn while so many in Ontario went with power, we’ve been experiencing the double whammy of unseasonably cold temperatures, huge amounts of snow, and power outages here in Newfoundland since I got home. Harrumph. Oh well. So it goes.

But I’m back now and gearing up for the winter term. I’ll be teaching two classes. The first, a fourth-year seminar looking at the troika of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy. The concept for this course is cheerfully stolen from a graduate course I took during my PhD—same authors, (mostly) different novels. I’ll have more to say about that course in future posts.

For now, I want to talk about my other course, which I can quite honestly say I’ve been preparing to teach since I was eleven years old: English 3811, which will focus more or less exclusively on The Lord of the Rings. While my academic career has been principally focused on contemporary American literature, film and popular culture, and postmodernism, the reading experience that defined—and still defines—how I read and why was my first encounter with Tolkien. As I have mentioned at various points, fantasy as a genre has always loomed large in my imagination. Over the last year or so, I have migrated back towards it from a more scholarly perspective, looking closely at contemporary fantasists like George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman and examining the ways in which a not-insignificant number of contemporary writers have been reinventing the genre. Gaiman, Martin, Terry Pratchett, Lev Grossman, and even her nibs Dame Rowling herself, have shifted fantasy’s basis from one grounded in an essentially mythopoeic outlook to a markedly humanist, secular one.

But however much I work on these authors, I keep coming back to Tolkien as if pulled by the gravitational force of a huge planet—he is to fantasy fiction what W.B. Yeats is to Irish poetry, or William Faulkner is to Southern Gothic, except even more so, because his work is as definitional as it is influential.

All of which makes teaching this course an extraordinary opportunity to return to the source, as it were, and to comb through the novel that first taught me that literature can have affect. I’ve been keeping a reading journal as I slowly re-read my favourite novel; over the next few months I’ll be posting on the journey. So have an eye for a Return to Middle-Earth.

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Coming soon: a recollection of my first copy of LotR, and a belated review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Stay tuned.

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Ich bin ein Narnian

jfk-assassination-1.pngYesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Given that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American literature and popular culture, it seemed appropriate that I should make some comment—I did, after all, devote a good many pages to discussing the key themes and tropes at work in various imaginative treatments of the assassination, especially Don DeLillo’s marvelous novel Libra and Oliver Stone’s less-than-marvelous film JFK (and a whole host of wackiness in between).

The more I thought about what I might write, however, the more it seemed like a futile endeavour—there is little or nothing I could say that would be enlightening about Kennedy at this point, and frankly, I think I’ve got conspiracy fatigue. Not just because I spent five years writing a three-hundred page thesis on the topic, but because of everything that has happened since. When I first conceived of the project, it was still the late 90s (1999, to be precise), a decade that, after some investigation, appeared to comprise a critical mass of conspiracism, from television and film (The X-Files, Enemy of the State, The Matrix) to rather terrifying real-world examples like Timothy McVeigh and the paramilitaries that spawned him. There were very few scholarly studies of conspiracy and paranoia when I sat down to work on my thesis; but as I struggled through it, more and more surfaced, until I began to dread scanning the lists of recently published scholarly books. I never published my thesis as a book, for several reasons: one was that I had the great good fortune to get hired at Memorial about eight months after defending my thesis, which took a lot of the pressure to get it published off; another was that I suffered from that common post-dissertation malaise, in which returning to the scene of the crime (as it were) and revising what you have just devoted (in my case) five years of your life to writing is not unlike probing the nerve of a tooth.

But there was a third factor (or a fourth, if we’re also including my congenital laziness), which was that by the time I defended in September 2004, conspiracism was at once everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because 9/11 had given us a brand new morass of paranoid thought (trutherism), and nowhere because the Bush administration—especially in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—was so shameless in its prosecution of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, wearing the Patriot Act on its sleeve, that the entire concept of “conspiracy” came to seem somewhat trite. Surveillance? Of course. Torture? You bet your ass. Blatant misdirection? Well, as one unnamed Bush aide (whom we all assume to be Karl Rove) told a reporter, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It was enough to make one nostalgic for the acknowledgement of transgression that the act of covering up covert operations like Watergate or Iran-Contra implied. The prospect of an enormous conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination is positively comforting by comparison.

I remember an important moment in the evolution of my thinking on conspiracy and paranoia: while going over a chapter in which JFK figured highly, my second reader said, “So tell me something. If someone were to produce absolute, ironclad proof about the truth of Kennedy’s assassination … would it matter?” I’m sure there have been many, many times in my life when I’ve gaped in consternation, and mercifully, I don’t remember most of them. I remember that time. Because of course, the answer is: No, in thunder. The sheer glut of details and information, much of it incongruous and conflicting, has made for a tar-pit that doesn’t just blunt Occam’s Razor but dissolves it to nothing. Don DeLillo captures this critical mass beautifully in Libra in the figure of Nicholas Branch, a CIA researcher tasked with writing the official “secret history” of the Kennedy assassination. After years of work, he has produced next to nothing: “He has extensive and overlapping notes—notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of actual finished prose, there is precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data.” The Warren Report itself, Branch speculates, is “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.” Included in its twenty-six volumes are

Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, cancelled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the center of gravity of JFK theories has been slowly shifting toward grudging acceptance of the single-shooter theory … or perhaps I only think that because that’s where my mind has gone. Once upon a time, I assumed that the chaos of seemingly conflicting detail, with whole hosts of elements unaccounted for, pointed to a conspiracy; now, I tend to think the opposite. Now, I tend to think that everyday life is a muddle of random crap, most of which we forget when we construct the memory of a given time. If any of us had the misfortune of having a twelve-hour slice of our life, one in which only some of the details were available, pored over by thousands upon thousands of observers and analysts, all of them attempting to determine logical causation, how much of our behaviour wouldn’t add up? How many caprices of impulse, forgetfulness, irritation, weariness, euphoria, to say nothing of such caprices in the lives of all the people we interact with, would conspiratorially-minded observers have to deal with? Narrative is how we make meaning of events, but narrative involves leaving out far more than it leaves in, and when every detail becomes meaningful, everything becomes meaningless. And often the most baffling observations can be made comprehensible with the introduction of the smallest of details (you can skip to 2:56 for an alternative to the “magic bullet” theory):

I’m not naïve: I have no doubt that there will be Kennedy conspiracists until the end of time, in the same way there will be those who deny the moon landing. And there will probably always be truthers and birthers. So it goes.

But what made me sit down to write (a day late) my thoughts on the fiftieth anniversary of November 22, 1963, was the discovery yesterday of something I never knew: on the day of Kennedy’s death, C.S. Lewis died. There is something to be written about this serendipity, something about the resonance between two rather different utopian visions—Kennedy’s New Frontier versus Lewis’ pastoral Narnia, the faith in the possibilities of an American future versus the nostalgia for the romance of an English past—but the thoughts are too inchoate in my mind for me to attempt it at this moment. There is also the possibility of a new swarm of satirical conspiracy theories (is Kennedy sitting on one of the thrones at Cair Paravel? Was the White Witch behind the grassy knoll?), but again, same thing.

TheLionWitchWardrobe(1stEd)In an entirely other, and entirely self-absorbed fashion, however, it is weirdly appropriate that I should only discover this intersection now … given that conspiracy theory was my entre to academia, and I’m currently researching fantasy. C.S. Lewis might not be one of the authors on whom I am focusing, but he is a massive influence—both on them, and on me. My graduate seminar recently looked at The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a novel that is deeply indebted to the Narnia chronicles in a variety of ways—and one of my students did a presentation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe apropos of that fact. (For Grossman’s fifty-year tribute to Lewis, which doesn’t mention JFK at all, go here).

I have no real point to this post, unless it is this: something to do with the increasing comfort with life’s messiness and complexity that age bestows. If there is a single point of contact with Narnia and Camelot, it is the investment in reductive mythology. Conspiracism, for all its apparent fascination with vast and myriad seas of information and data, is dedicated to the creation of narratives whose ostensible complexities are really just a smokescreen for their simplistic natures. They are just as mythological in nature as either the hagiographies of Kennedy or the stories of his criminal malfeasance. I was thinking yesterday of the film Thirteen Days, a reasonably good dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the fact that in it, Kennedy displays none of his less palatable qualities. There are no quickies with any of his many mistresses, none of the arrogance or cruelty we now know marked many of his interactions with others … Bruce Greenwood does an excellent job of portraying the president as conflicted and beset (though as much as I like Greenwood, fine upstanding Canadian that he is, Stephen Culp’s RFK steals the film), but there is little in the way of nuance. Perhaps even more than Oliver Stone’s JFK, this film settles into the category of Kennedy hagiography. All of which made me wonder: does the sheer scope of JFK’s complexities as a man make him impossible to depict?

TheMagiciansThe Magicians pretty much split my grad class down the middle in terms of students’ reactions: half loved it, half hated it, and for pretty much the same reasons: that it gives us a version of Harry Potter and Narnia that introduces the elements of ordinary angst, emotional caprice, and thoughtless cruelty on the part of characters who are also protagonists. Fantasy as a genre carries the connotations of unequivocal good and evil: Aslan versus the White Witch, Gandalf versus Sauron, Harry Potter versus Voldemort, and so on. What I love about a lot of recent works by George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Morgan is that we’re leaving that simplistic mythos behind and finding a more nuanced narrative.

Now, if someone could do that with JFK …

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James Bond vs. Voldemort: A Thought Experiment

We did Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in my fantasy and humanism grad class this week, much to the delight of my students. As much as I love the Harry Potter series, there have always been elements of it that irk me—mostly, what we might characterize as its relation to the “muggle” world. In some ways, the cognitive dissonance of Rowlings’ novels play to comic and symbolic effect; in other ways, for fantasy novels meant to depict an interface with the “primary reality,” they start to stretch credulity.

I could go on about this in pedantic fashion, but for a long time now I’ve been toying with a little setpiece drama that articulates my critique. Having dwelt at length this morning on the main elements, here it is.

James-bond-daniel-craig

SETTING: the summer between the end of The Half-Blood Prince and the start of The Deathly Hallows. James Bond, dressed impeccably as always in a Saville Row suit, sits at a long table in Malfoy Manor, his feet resting insouciantly on the well-polished dark wood, the most recent edition of The Daily Prophet open in front of his face. On the table beside him sits his Walther PPK, fitted with a silencer. In the shadows behind him we can glimpse the still, unconscious forms of Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy.

There is a noise from the manor’s front hall as the door opens, and the sounds of low voices and footsteps approaching the room in which Bond waits. Laughter, low and satisfied—whatever the people entering have been doing, they have been successful. Voldemort enters, Nagini sliding silently along at his feet, followed by Bellatrix LeStrange and about half a dozen Death Eaters.

They all stop in confusion when they see the man sitting at the table.

BOND: (flipping the corner of the paper aside so they can see his face) Ah, there you are. About bloody time.

(mutters of confusion and outrage from the Death Eaters, silenced by Voldemort)

VOLDEMORT: A muggle?

(he speaks the word with great distaste, but also with caution, cocking his head as he stares at Bond. He has seen the Malfoys on the ground beyond him; though he senses that Bond is no wizard, he simply cannot grasp how a muggle would have invaded this space)

BOND: A muggle? Yes, of course, that name you give us. (slowly and deliberately, he folds up the paper as he talks and places it on the table, but does not remove his feet) Yes, I fear I am a … “muggle.” And I am here to deliver—

BELLATRIX: (enraged, lurches past Voldemort and levels her wand) AVADA KEDAVARA!

(the bolt of green light streaks across the room and dissolves as it strikes something invisible about three feet away from Bond’s face. He smiles at them suavely as they stare in disbelief)

BOND: (finally swinging his legs off the table, he leans forward and steeples his fingers) As I was saying, I am here to deliver a message from Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (gestures at the chairs opposite) Perhaps you would all like to sit down? No reason we cannot be civilized.

BELLATRIX: AVADA KEDAVARA!

(again, the bolt of green falters and evaporates against some invisible barrier. Bond sighs)

BOND: (to Voldemort) Would you please tell her to stop that? She can keep on all night, and all it will serve to do is interrupt.

VOLDEMORT: (leans on the edge of the table) How?

BOND: Ah. (raises his hands to show them his jewelled cuff links) Something Q and the boffins worked up. Couldn’t tell you how it works, but it gives me an anti-magical field extending three feet out in all directions. I suppose I should thank you, Miss LeStrange, for field-testing them.

BELLATRIX: Bloody, filthy muggle! Who do you think you are, coming in here—

(Voldemort irritably waves her silent)

BOND: Thank you.

VOLDEMORT: (sitting) I don’t disagree with her. The only reason I’m not killing you is because you … have a message?

BOND: Also, my cuff links.

VOLDEMORT: Your message, scum?

BOND: You’d do well to learn some courtesy, Mr. Riddle. Yes, we know who you are—or who you were—we do have our resources, you know, dirty muggles that we are. But I suppose I cannot expect you to adapt to the unexpected all at once.

VOLDEMORT: (visibly angry) Your message?

BOND: On behalf of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I am here to inform you that all attacks on non-magical British citizens will cease immediately.

VOLDEMORT: (stares at Bond for a long moment incredulously and then bursts into a high-pitched laugh. His Death Eaters echo him) They will cease? And who, precisely, are you to demand anything of the Dark Lord? We will do as we wish, and all muggles will cower before us!

BOND: I’m not cowering. (to Bellatrix) Care to try your luck again? (for a moment it looks as though she will, but then he picks up his pistol) Be warned, this time, I’ll shoot back. Oh, and … (glancing down at the floor) if your snake comes any closer, I will in fact shoot it in the fucking head.

VOLDEMORT: (a little hastily) Nagini!

BOND: Let’s make a few things clear hear. For a very long time, the custom has been that, when we have a new prime minister, your Minister of Magic pays him a visit …

DEATH EATER: He’s not our minister.

BOND: (shrugging) From what I hear, he will be soon enough. Not that that matters a whit to us. But for generations now, your Minister of Magic pops into the office of the newly minted Prime Minister, and says something to the effect of “Hello, there are wizards in your country. Don’t worry your head about it. We’ll only ever need to speak if something goes wrong.” Is that about right? (he surveys the group opposite him, but no one answers) Sorry. Rhetorical question. But here’s another question: what, precisely, did you lot think would happen then? (again, silence, but a more confused one. Bond nods pityingly) I suspected as much. You lot thought we’d—what? Try desperately to forget? Think we’d just imagined it all? You’re very good at hiding yourselves from us, I’ll give you that. But let me tell you what happens every time a new prime minister gets a visit from your man: after a few minutes of bewilderment, he’s on the phone to the heads of MI-6 and MI-5, demanding—and pardon my French—“What the fuck just happened?”

(Bond smiles and leans forward)

And do you know what they say to him? “We’ll be right over to brief you, Prime Minister.” Because of course, having known we share a country with people of your particular … talents … we have been naturally a little uneasy. We have been looking into this … issue … for a very long time now. (there is a murmur of surprise from the Death Eaters. Bond shakes his head at them disdainfully) Honestly, you lot have been stupid. Underestimating your enemy is the first and last sin of warfare. Did you really think we’d discover there are wizards and witches among us and not prepare ourselves? (Bond has been getting slightly agitated. With an effort he calms himself and straightens his tie) Not that we’ve had cause for much concern. To be fair, your lot has been pretty quiescent for a long time. It was only about seventeen years ago that we started to get really worried. Care to guess why?

(again, silence from Voldemort and his cohort, except for a few embarrassed coughs)

Suddenly, you lot weren’t so quiescent. Deaths, violence … lots of dead “muggles.” Your minister was suddenly in contact with ours an awful lot, and we gathered that there was an unusually powerful wizard keen to conquer the rest of the magical world. Which would have mattered little to us, except that he and his people seemed pretty hostile to muggles.

(shakes his head)

Did you ever—ever—imagine that we were going to ignore a prospective threat in our nation? Well, of course you did. You can’t bring yourself to think that mudbloods are worth anything, much less muggles. In your eyes, we’re sheep. Am I wrong? (he stares challengingly at Voldemort)

VOLDEMORT: You are sheep. How dare you challenge us like this! How dare you even speak to me like this! AVADA KEDAVARA!

(he stands and flourishes his wand. The green bolt disperses just as Bellatrix’s did, and Bond does not even flinch. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a tablet about half the size of an iPhone)

BOND: Impressive. I suppose you won’t be surprised to know your spell was twice as powerful as your friend’s. Not that it matters. (replaces the tablet in his pocket) This all is, frankly, getting tedious. If I can get to the bottom of the page: we have been developing countermeasures against your “magic” for decades now. And that’s just us here in Britain—I can’t even begin to tell you what the Americans are up to. This little meeting wouldn’t have been necessary, except that you lot seem to be getting a little ahead of yourselves. We don’t care, one way or another, who wins this war of yours … but it does seem that you have dreams beyond domination of the magical world, yes? You want the muggles to be your slaves?

VOLDEMORT: It is the right of the purebloods to rule over the tainted and the weak.

BOND: (scratching his chin ironically) Hm. Yes, that sounds familiar, somehow. You might do yourself a favour and study some muggle history and see how that attitude played out before. (shrugs) But really, that’s neither here nor there. You might want to revise your conception of muggles as somehow “weak.” Magic is an impressive thing, to be sure … and you have a talent for killing, Mr. Riddle. But … (Bond stands, and leans forward, his hands on the table) you might want to do some research and think about how many people you’re able to kill all at once … and how many we are able to kill all at once. (he straightens, and shrugs) It’s not something we’re necessarily proud of. But you should think twice about bringing your … (he gestures vaguely) hocus pocus into a fight where the other fellow has an atom bomb. (Voldemort and the Death Eaters stare at him blankly. Bond favours them with a cold smile) This is what I mean when I suggest you do some research.

VOLDEMORT: What are you telling us? What is your message?

BOND: I am telling you that you are free to wage your war as you see fit. Conquer your enemies. We muggles who know what’s what hope you will lose, of course, but we are not involved. But know this: the moment you decide dominion over the magical world isn’t enough, and you seek to subjugate the rest of us? (smiles frostily) That will spell the end of you.

(this causes the Death Eaters to erupt in a storm of outrage, the Dark Lord himself most of all. He levels his wand again at Bond)

VOLDEMORT: Crucio!

(this time, Bond holds up his right hand so his signet ring points directly at Voldemort. He presses the band on the inside of his finger and it emits a blinking light. Voldemort screams in agony as his spell rebounds on him)

BOND: (to himself) Well done, Q. You’ve outdone yourself. (to the Death Eaters, who stand in shocked silence, staring at Voldemort as he recovers from the effects of his own spell). One more thing: any and all killings of muggles will end now. Her Majesty’s Secret Service will remain neutral in your war, but we will respond with lethal force against the Death Eaters every time a non-magical citizen is murdered. To wit … (he picks up his pistol and glares, narrow-eyed, at the Death Eaters clustered around Voldemort) There was a shopkeeper found dead this evening in Bristol. No visible wounds. I imagine that was one of you?

(silence for a moment, and then a burly Death Eater steps belligerently forward)

DEATH EATER: That was me. I killed the dirty—

(he is cut off as Bond raises his gun and shoots him neatly twice in the head. There is a shocked silence)

BOND: Oh, yes. We’ve also developed ammunition that is impervious to your spells. (straightens his tie) I believe that is all, gentlemen … and lady. Your friends here behind me will recover in due time. I fear that your other friend there will not. Have yourselves a good evening.

(No one, not even Bellatrix, attempts to stop him as he circles the table and walks past where they’ve huddled around their fallen comrade. He is just past the threshold when Bellatrix breaks the silence)

BELLATRIX: Who are you?

(he pauses for a moment)

BOND: The name is Bond. James Bond.

(exit)

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Sir Terry’s Gospel of Pragmatism

“Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and mercilessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered.”
Witches Abroad

pratchett_portrait Last week we did Witches Abroad by Sir Terry Pratchett in my graduate seminar, which was both a joy and a frustration—a frustration because I only allotted one class for him. The true genius of the Discworld novels only starts to become apparent once you have read five or six or twelve of them. Which, perhaps, seems like a backhanded compliment—suggesting that a truly great author could demonstrate that greatness in a single novel. And that might be true enough, as far as it goes; but it is also representative of just one approach to fiction and, more importantly, fictional worlds. Trying to teach Pratchett is not unlike trying to teach television: a single episode of Breaking Bad might offer up interesting formal and thematic considerations, but if you only ever watch one episode you won’t come close to understanding Breaking Bad.

So it is with Discworld.

For those unfamiliar with Discworld: hie thee to the fantasy section of your closest bookstore, post haste! But if you’re reading this outside regular business hours, or have currently barricaded yourself against zombies, or can’t go out for some other reason (though really, zombie apocalypse is the only acceptable one in this instance), let me set the series up for you. The Discworld is … well, let’s let Sir Terry himself describe it for you:

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on his back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Exactly why this should be may never be known. Possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocity, and decided to have a bit of fun for once. (Wyrd Sisters)

Paul_Kidby_Discworld

I started reading Discworld three and a half years ago, and in that time have read thirty of the thirty-three Discworld novels proper (which is to distinguish them from the five young adult Discworld novels and the one illustrated adventure The Last Hero). Pratchett’s output is astounding: folding in the five young adult Discworld novels, The Last Hero, Good Omens (his collaboration with Neil Gaiman), The Long Earth and The Long War (his collaborations with Stephen Baxter), The Carpet People, Truckers, Diggers, Wings, Nation (non-Discworld young adult novels), and … well, honestly, there’s more, but at this point the count is forty-six novels since he published The Colour of Magic in 1983.

And he has a new Discworld novel, Raising Steam, coming out in a month. Ye gods.

This prolific output is one of the things that has made Sir Terry a less-than-attractive subject for scholarly and academic attention.1 Never mind the standard prejudice that obtains once an author writes this much (“If he’s written that many novels, how good can they be?”), there is also the simple difficulty in accounting for the sheer volume of his work. Again, not dissimilar to teaching television: how does one account for an entire season, never mind the entire run of a show?

Discworld is an example of what I have taken to calling an “iterative world”: a fantasy world or alternative reality whose laws, geography, science, mythology, and history are refined with each new narrative added to the collective. If you go back and read one of the earlier novels—The Colour of Magic, for example, or Equal Rites—after having read a handful of the later ones, you’ll find a familiar Discworld … though not entirely familiar, as it has somewhat more nebulous dimensions and outlines, a more embryonic version of a place that comes into increasingly sharp focus as it accrues detail and substance.2

I could talk endlessly about Discworld as an imaginative space and the theoretical implications of it when set alongside other such iterative worlds as Middle-Earth, Westeros, or collaborative worlds like Azeroth (and I will, oh yes my preciouss, in future posts I will), but what struck me yet again in returning to Witches Abroad is Terry Pratchett’s humanistic pragmatism. Like much else informing Pratchett’s fiction, the humour and occasional slapstick of the stories—to say nothing of the frequent, hilarious footnotes he offers—can obscure his broader ethical preoccupations. For the Discworld novels do comprise, among other things, an extended discourse on secular humanist ethics, rooted in the acknowledgement of human imperfection and a deep suspicion of ideological solutions.

The idea for a graduate seminar on fantasy and humanism—and the research that informs it—derived from several places, but it is fair to say that reading Sir Terry had a huge influence on it. Discworld boasts pretty much every fantasy convention imaginable: from magic and magical beings, to every imaginable fantasy species (trolls, dwarfs, orcs, goblins, vampires, golems, werewolves, dragons, and so forth), great heroes (albeit often in ironic form, such as the octogenarian Cohen the Barbarian), castles and peasantry, and enchanted forests galore. But always the stories, many of them recognizable riffs on classic fantasy (“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards because a refusal often offends, I read somewhere”), or popular narratives (Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Phantom of the Opera in Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade, respectively), or real-world concerns (cinema and Hollywood in Moving Pictures, rock and roll in Soul Music, newspapers in The Truth, Christmas in Hogfather) … always the stories, whatever their focus, proceed from a sensibility that, even as it pays homage to the subject and/or source material, is at pains to frustrate generic expectations and draw attention to fantasy’s more regressive tendencies.

By way of example: in Men at Arms, we glean that the impressive Corporal Carrot of the City Watch is the prophesied King of Ankh-Morpork, and in fact possesses the sword that identifies him as such. But he does not take his “rightful” place, because Ankh-Morpork is much better off without a king, and he’s not really interested in the job anyway. In Jingo, the inevitable march to war against an identifiably Middle-Eastern enemy is halted by Samuel Vimes, who sees negotiation and compromise as preferable to bloodshed. In Monstrous Regiment, the familiar story of a girl from an impoverished family disguising herself as a man to join the army is given a comic twist as we slowly realize that every soldier in her regiment is actually an impoverished girl in disguise.

And in Witches Abroad, familiar stories and the expectations they evoke are the story:

Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up on all the vibrations of all of all the others workings of the story that have ever been.

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.

So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Witches Abroad is about a demented fairy godmother who is absolutely determined to give people happy endings, and who has become the effective dictator of the Discworld city of Genua (a thinly veiled New Orleans), as she orchestrates her masterwork—bringing the Princess Emberella (whose true identity is secret, as she slaves in the home of her ostensible stepsisters) together with a nobleman (the “Duc”). The three witches of the title—Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrit Garlick—make their way to Genua to foil her. Along the way they encounter a series of other familiar stories, such as a Gollum-like creature in a subterranean river (Granny Weatherwax hits him with her paddle); a village terrorized by a vampire (Magrit smacks it with her window as it attempts to enter her room in bat form, and it gets eaten by Nanny Ogg’s cat as it lies, stunned, on the ground); they also encounter a confused wolf that feels compelled to eat a grandmother, a sleeping princess in an enchanted castle, hear tell of a trio of pigs in a neighbouring village with wolf issues, and Nanny Ogg—wearing her red boots—has a farmhouse suddenly fall on her head.

discworld-witches-abroad

Their journey to Genua is thus comically picaresque, and as they get closer they see the fairy godmother’s handiwork in the stories they stumble across (and into). But while the novel begins with the apparently benign assertion that stories are happening all the time and that the frequency of their repetition gives their outcomes a certain inevitability, this determinism takes on an increasingly pernicious character. The Red Riding Hood sequence is actually heartbreaking, as the wolf has literally become a tortured soul in being compelled to behave in singularly un-wolflike ways, and ultimately makes a plaintive appeal to Granny Weatherwax to make an end. The woodsman who does the deed reflects in surprise at how willingly the poor beast puts its head on the chopping block.

When they reach Genua, which is under the thrall of Lilith, the fairy godmother, they find a city that is bright, clean, smiling, and utterly terrified—for if the people do not step outside the boundaries of what is acceptable for their stories, they are severely punished (such as the toymaker, who is thrown in the dungeon because he does not tell charming stories to children. Protesting that he doesn’t know any stories and is, furthermore, very bad at telling them, doesn’t garner him any leniency). The previous tyrant, the Baron, was cruel and ruthless; Lilith’s rule, however, is the other end of the dystopian spectrum: the utopian vision taken to despotic extremes. As Granny Weatherwax asserts, “You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.” Or as Sam Vimes puts it in in Night Watch, “The moment you start measuring people, some people won’t measure up.”

What the texts I’m teaching in this seminar articulate—and which Sir Terry’s work pretty much exemplifies—is a tendency within some recent fantasy to reverse what we might characterize as traditional fantasy’s religious temperament, at least where power dynamics are concerned. Such transcendent imperatives as prophecy, fate, destiny, and the presence of deterministic higher powers—so crucial to authors like Tolkien and Lewis—find themselves (at the very least) complicated, challenged, critiqued, or quite simply ignored in the works of authors like Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, or Patrick Rothfuss. In some of these works, this shift is subtle, perhaps even incidental; but what I love about Sir Terry is the way in which the Discworld novels function as specific critiques of what Jacques Derrida called “the transcendental signified,” i.e., discourse imagined as somehow innate, whose logic proceeds from something beyond the horizon of our understanding. Gods exist in Pratchett’s alternative world, but they are the product of human belief and thought rather than the other way around; magic exists, but is mostly avoided, as its use more often than not leads to more complications; and the greatest virtue practised (if not always espoused) is common sense and making allowances for human (and dwarf, and troll, etc.) failings and caprice. Indeed, the greatest conflicts in the Discworld novels arise when individuals or groups attempt to assert that this is the way things should be.

Those who have read a lot of Discworld novels will grasp what I mean when I say: there is a big, long essay to be written about Lord Vetinari in this respect.

Sir Terry makes his personal philosophy known in numerous interviews as well, in which he makes such humanistic statements as “in my religion, the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral” or, more famously, “I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.” For a sense of his wit and wisdom, this interview is one of my favourites:

I have three Discworld novels left to read, not counting the new one coming out in November. I have not yet been able to start any of them. I am reluctant to do so: a great part of me does not want to come to the end of these books, even though Sir Terry is still writing them.

NOTES

1. He suffers on this front from a quadruple-whammy—first, his output; second, his popularity (he was the highest-selling pre-Rowling author in the UK in the 1990s), for which authors are always treated with suspicion in English departments; thirdly, he writes fantasy; and lastly, he is absolutely, brilliantly, uproariously hilarious. Literary scholarship has difficulty dealing with genuinely funny texts, for it starts to feel as though our lectures and essays are just explaining the jokes (unless you’re teaching the likes of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift, in which case explaining the jokes is a necessary preamble to your lecture).

2. Discworld has also been expanded and refined by fans and collaborators as well, with The Folklore of Discworld (written by Pratchett in collaboration with Jacqueline Simpson), four volumes of The Science of Discworld (with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen), and The Discworld Mapp, a definitive map of Discworld created by cartographer Stephen Briggs. There are other books as well, some authorized and some not, to say nothing of a Discworld Wiki page and numerous other fan sites.

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