Category Archives: what I’m watching

Some Thoughts on The Rings of Power, or, Shall We Compare Mythologies?

Having watched the first three episodes of The Rings of Power, I can, with relief and delight, say that I love it so far. It has its problems, which I may or may not talk about in future posts, but the end of episode three left me wishing I could binge the whole season in a day. Always a good sign. Whether it rises to the level of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films remains to be seen, but it has that potential.1

So, I won’t be talking about the episodes in detail. Nor do I particularly want to talk about the entirely predictable furor that has become commonplace when something like The Rings of Power is released—namely, the howls of protest that arise from the revanchist precincts of a given fan community when the new product is perceived to have been tailored for “woke” political sensitivities. That particular drumbeat has been pounding since the release of the first Rings trailer revealed that the series would feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, and, yes, humans who were not white—something perceived by the usual suspects as a rank betrayal of the source material in the name of political correctness.2

I don’t want to talk about that backlash … but given what I am talking about, I can’t ignore it entirely. Not that it should be ignored, mind you—but there have been enough good pieces dealing with it that I would just be repeating other people’s principal points.

For the moment what I want to try and do is articulate some thoughts on fantasy and mythology, and the perennial compulsion to adapt, refine, revisit, revise, and expand upon stories that are profoundly meaningful to us one way or another. These thoughts are at the front of my mind for two reasons, the first being the recent embarrassment of riches on television of stories meaningful to me: The Rings of Power’s illumination of earlier histories of Middle-earth; House of the Dragon’s return to Westeros; and just a few weeks ago, Netflix’s release of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the only comic book I’ve ever read obsessively.

From left: Tom Sturridge as Morpheus in The Sandman; Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in The Rings of Power; and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon. I believe I said something in a previous post about the divine right of cheekbones?

The second reason is that this fall I’m teaching a first-year English course called “Imagined Places.” My variation on its theme is modern and contemporary rewritings of Greek myths.3 As part of my preparation I’ve been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey, which started as an exercise in refreshing my memory of their finer points and has become a joyful reunion with texts I first read in high school, and then again in an intro to classics course I took in my first year of university.

Few works in the history of western literature have inspired quite as much imitation and revision. Keep that in mind as we go, because it’s something I’m going to circle back around to.

My entry point to this discussion is a recent New York Times column by Tolkien scholar Michael Drout, titled “Please Don’t Make a Tolkien Cinematic Universe.” I’ll get into the particulars as I go, but the gist of his argument is that the subtle complexities of Tolkien’s moral universe are beyond the scope of contemporary film and television; unfortunately, the franchise model of cinema that has come to dominate the current entertainment market likely sees Tolkien as a wealth of source material to be exploited. Should Amazon (or, presumably, any other corporate media entity) turn Tolkien’s legendarium into something akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it will inevitably miss, mangle, or pervert the moral vision at the heart of Tolkien’s work.

To be clear, that last sentence is my extrapolation from Drout’s argument—he does not himself say as much in so many words, but it is an accurate summary of his concern. “Is it fair to the legacies of writers like Tolkien,” Drout asks, “to build franchises from their works without their knowledge or permission?” There were attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film while Tolkien was still alive; initial, wary interest on Tolkien’s part turned fairly quickly into antipathy to the whole idea as he rejected one spec script after another, finally declaring that his work was unsuited for film. His biographer recounts a time Tolkien attended a staged version of The Hobbit, at which he frowned every time the play departed from the novel. “So it is hard to believe,” Drout concludes, “that he would have approved of a team of writers building almost entirely new stories with little direct basis in his works.”

Here of course Drout means The Rings of Power, which is drawn from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.4 It is true that the series is taking a big swing, building out a multi-season story arc from some short summaries and chronologies of the Second Age. Such a sketchy basis, Drout suggests, is a poor foundation on which to build—but then, from what he says, it’s a reasonably good chance Tolkien would similarly have disapproved of Peter Jackson’s films (whose absence from his discussion is an odd omission to which I’ll return). Tolkien’s imagined approval or disapproval is at least somewhat beside the point, however; it is strange to suggest that adaptations and retellings of a given author’s work are somehow “unfair” to their legacy, considering that entire cottage industries thrive on adapting authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Possibly Austen might have liked Clueless, but would probably have looked askance at Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. Does a spectral Shakespeare burn with anger at all the distortions of Hamlet, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Lion King?

Or is fifty years not long enough? (Tolkien died in 1973). Must we wait for copyright to expire?

I pose these questions with my tongue only partly in my cheek: I’m trying to read Drout’s concerns generously but can’t help but find them a little disingenuous. Especially considering—as I mentioned above—that he elides any mention of Peter Jackson’s films, except to acknowledge that they exist. This omission is passing strange if for no other reason than that we already have a Tolkien cinematic universe, helpfully spanning the extremes of good and bad—with The Lord of the Rings films displaying both profound respect for their source material and moments of brilliant filmmaking, while The Hobbit films are a hot mess of poor directorial impulse control.

A few of the lowlights from The Hobbit–though I must confess I have always liked Tharanduil’s battle moose.

There have also been a handful of animated adaptations, most notably Ralph Bakshi’s somewhat trippy 1978 Lord of the Rings that blended traditional animation with rotoscoping.4

The animated 1977 film of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings.

There is also a Lord of the Rings stage musical—of which I was somehow unaware until one of my students in my Tolkien class last year sent me a YouTube link, destroying my blissful ignorance.

And while we’re at it, there have also been a significant number of video games set in Middle-earth, perhaps most notably Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG in the mold of World of Warcraft, whose fidelity to the geography, story, and lore of Tolkien’s work would probably impress even Michael Drout.

A still from Lord of the Rings Online. Not sure what’s happening here, but it looks heroic.

And though Drout’s quibble is with the prospect of a Tolkien cinematic universe, there is also the inescapable fact that there has always been the Tolkien expanded universe. Created initially of course by the man himself with his “mythology”—into which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were folded—it was then enlarged with The Silmarillion and the further eighteen volumes edited by his son Christopher that provided readers with world-building akin to that of the mad encyclopedists of Jorge Luis Borges’ storyTlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Given this already-existing critical mass of material, it makes me wonder why Drout draws the line at The Rings of Power; why choose this moment to stand athwart the expanding Tolkien universe to yell stop?

The uncharitable reading would be to suggest that this is of a piece with the more overtly revanchist backlash, just more delicately articulated; the more generous reading is to take him at his word and presume that he’s concerned that Amazon will take Tolkien down the same road as Marvel comics have gone, or—and this was a pretty widely shared worry, though now mostly allayed—that The Rings of Power showrunners would feel compelled to create a Game of Thrones clone. Drout, indeed, alludes to both these apprehensions while asserting that “the groupthink produced by the contemporary ecosystems of writers’ rooms, Twitter threads and focus groups” of the “Hollywood of 2022” is innately out of step with Tolkien’s unique sensibility:

The writing that this dynamic is particularly good at producing—witty banter, arch references to contemporary issues, graphic and often sexualized violence, self-righteousness—is poorly suited to Middle-earth, a world with a multilayered history that eschews tidy morality plays and blockbuster gore.6

Citing the fact that the quest of The Lord of the Rings is not the attainment of power but its destruction, and that in bearing the Ring Frodo is too wounded, physically and psychically, to return to his life as it was before, Drout asks, “Can a company as intent upon domination as Amazon really understand this perspective—and adapt that morality to the screen?” While I’m not unsympathetic to anyone taking issue with Amazon as a cultural and societal blight, I find this line of argument bewilderingly obtuse—as if Jeff Bezos were the one writing, casting, costuming, and doing art direction.7

Ultimately, however, my interest in Drout’s argument is that its inconsistencies speak to a broader, more significant issue with Tolkien’s mythology—or rather, with Tolkien as mythology. In the end, whether or not Amazon does a good job with The Rings of Power, or whether they do attempt to build out an expanded cinematic universe on par with Marvel, really matters very little for a fairly simple reason: that Tolkien in fact succeeded in realizing his lifelong goal. He created an enduring mythology.

I will come to that in a moment. But first, for the sake of argument, let’s take some of the protests over The Rings of Power casting of nonwhite actors on their merits. One strain of the “I’m not racist, but—” arguments is that Tolkien’s world is explicitly modeled on Northern European geography, cultures, and ethnicities, and so introducing obviously non-European-looking characters disrupts Tolkien’s design and intent. A refinement on this line of thinking says “OK, sure, introduce Black elves, but make it clear how it serves the story!” In other words, offer an explanation of how there came to be Black elves (and hobbits, and dwarves, and humans).

To be fair, I’ve seen such concerns offered with all appearance of sincerity and earnestness,8 and there are, if one has the patience for it, substantive counter-arguments, some of which are based in Tolkien’s own lore. One example that has gone viral is from none other than Neil Gaiman:

There is also the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t quite as monolithically white as is often assumed or depicted, given the vestiges of the multi-ethnic Roman legions left behind after the western empire imploded; there was also, more significantly, brisk trade that brought people from Moorish Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East into regular contact with Europeans of all shades.9

But again, this is all at least partly beside the point I want to make. To be generous, I’ll say that the idea that the casting choices in The Rings of Power are somehow transgressive resides in a vague understanding of the original story as sacrosanct, or that there is an “authentic” Tolkienian vision to which it behooves all adaptors to hew. Leaving aside the simple fact that “authenticity” in this context is always going to be illusory and chimerical, is it really even desirable? Are we obliged to honour every boundary, real and imagined, that an author places on interpretations of their work?

Fortunately such a myopic approach is not practical or feasible. Neither the creative arts nor literary criticism have anything like the legal doctrine of originalism, something of which Tolkien was well aware. He might have gotten stroppy over prospective filmic adaptations or a staged version of The Hobbit, but his lifelong project was to shape a mythology—something he was at his most candid and open about in a long letter to the publisher Milton Waldman. Tolkien was at the time (the letter is undated but most likely written late 1951) shopping around The Lord of the Rings; he was having some difficulty finding a publisher because he was still insisting that LotR should be published in a single volume with the prehistory that would eventually become The Silmarillion. Given the already-epic length of LotR, publishers were understandably reluctant at including the dense mythology. But Tolkien had not yet reconciled himself to jettisoning the narratives of Middle-earth’s First and Second Ages, and he attempted to persuade Waldman by explaining the import of the project to him. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it,” he says. “I have been at it since I could write.” His aim, he says, was not merely to make up stories, but to build a mythology that could supplement what he saw as a lack in his native country:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.

He goes on to explain that his own mythopoeic project was precisely an attempt to replace what he felt to be missing:

I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England: to my country.

Not exactly a humble ambition, something he self-deprecatingly acknowledges as he pleads “Do not laugh!” and adds at the end “Absurd.” But one is put in mind of John Milton’s determination to write an epic poem in English that would be the equal—or the superior—of Homer and Virgil,10 or James Joyce, whose own grandiose ambition was voiced by his alter ego Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he says, absurdly, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

But like Milton and Joyce11, Tolkien succeeded in his seemingly hubristic ambition—he did create a mythology that has taken on its own life as it captured people’s imaginations, albeit not perhaps as he thought it might. His vision, it turns out, was too modest: Middle-earth has transcended England and become the world’s mythology. And like all such mythologies, it is futile to try and contain it.

This is where we come back around to my first-year English class: as I said, we’re looking at modern and contemporary poetry and fiction that reimagines and revisits classic Greek myth, often in ways that give voice to those figures who are ancillary to the main action, or disposable in the name of advancing the plot. The modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes “Eurydice,” in which the title character excoriates her husband Orpheus for consigning her to Hades—again!—when he couldn’t help but look back at the last moment (you had one job!). Or Canadian poet Don McKay’s reimagining of Icarus as an unapologetic adrenaline junky aiming to get that fall from on high just right.

And then there’s the story of Briseis: The Iliad, long considered the origin point of Western literature, begins when the great warrior Achilles and High King Agamemnon quarrel over Briseis, a Trojan woman who is Achilles’ spoil of war, whom Agamemnon takes from him. In a fit of pique, Achilles retires to his tent to sulk and withholds the forces he commands, allowing the Trojans to turn the tide and bring the fight all the way back to the Greek ships, forcing Agamemnon to swallow his pride and send Briseis back to Achilles. In her novel The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker retells the events of The Iliad from Briseis’ point of view. This shift of perspective makes explicit the brutality of the war and the way it envelops non-combatants in its implacable, bloody logic: the trauma visited on ordinary people, the slaughter of innocents, the enslavement and rape of the women taken captive. Barker’s novel is harrowing, brilliant, and faithful to The Iliad; it would also, I am certain, be considered a “woke” attempt to tear down the edifice of classic Greek literature if read by those who view a Black elf as a profound betrayal of Tolkien’s legacy.

A thought I’ve had a lot lately is what low esteem Tolkien purists have for Tolkien’s work, given that they seem to believe the slightest deviation from what they perceive as the original or authentic vision is somehow mortally damaging to Tolkien’s legacy. The opposite is the case: Tolkien’s peculiar genius lies in the very capaciousness of his vision. It contains multitudes. Not even Amazon can dent it. And that, of course, is the nature of mythology: if the ancient Romans had had Twitter, there would have been endless arguments in the Greek myth fan community over the Latinizing of the gods’ names; Ovid would have been excoriated for the liberties he took, Virgil for being an Augustan propagandist; and legions of toga-clad hipsters would sniff into their wine (locally sourced, of course) that Hesiod was the only truly authentic mythographer.

But none of the Roman emendations and transformations of the Greek myths had a deleterious effect on Homer, any more than do contemporary novels by Pat Barker or Madeline Miller. And no more than The Rings of Power, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, or even Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have had on Tolkien’s mythos.

Indeed, in his letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien is quite clear about how he wants his mythology to be picked up, adapted, and transformed by others: “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” And so it has transpired. Whether Tolkien would have liked any of the scholarship, cinema and television, fan fiction, video games, and indeed the whole raft of imitative works that came to comprise the genre of fantasy as we now know it is irrelevant. Such is the risk you take when you create something transcendent.

NOTES

1. I suppose we should appreciate that Jackson established a spectrum of quality against which all future Tolkien adaptations can be measured, with the Lord of the Rings films establishing the high-water mark and The Hobbit films as the nadir.

2. One thing I will say on this point is that two of the things giving the anti-woke crowd the nativist vapours are my favourite parts of the show: namely, the young, impetuous, warrior version of Galadriel played by Morfydd Clark, and the EOC (elf of colour) Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova. Cordova is veritably mesmerizing as Arondir, playing the character with a tightly controlled mien that just barely hints at a tumult beneath; when in the third episode he breaks out the Legolas-like balletic combat, I don’t think his expression changes. Not that I would want to typecast him, but he’s all set to play a Vulcan should he want to stick with the SF/F thing.

Meanwhile, the complaints about Galadriel are as predictable as they are exhausting, starting with whinges about making a female character the show’s main focus and filter. Beyond that, (some) people can’t seem to reconcile Clark’s smouldering rage and badass combat skills with the cool reserve with which Cate Blanchett endowed the character … never considering, presumably, that that degree of imperturbable self-control is something one earns.

Also, it’s probably mere coincidence that the first thing Galadriel does in the first episode is kill a troll. I’m sure that wasn’t something the writers did in anticipation of the backlash the character would inevitably face.

3. We’re starting with Rick Riordan’s YA novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; then Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the Trojan woman over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel; Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the titular witch who plays a small but significant role in The Odyssey; and The Just City by Jo Walton, a novel in which the goddess Athene creates Plato’s Republic out of curiosity, to see if it would actually work. We’ll also be doing a bunch of poetry (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” for example, and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”), as well as reading the relevant myths as recounted in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I would have actually preferred to use Stephen Fry’s book Mythos, which is an arch and elegant compendium, but it is too expensive and too long to justify including it, especially when my students would only be reading a fraction of it. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook off and on all summer—read, of course, by Fry himself—and it is a delight).

4. For legal reasons I haven’t entirely parsed, Amazon has the rights to The Lord of the Rings—and its appendices—but not The Silmarillion.

5. The Bakshi LotR was just the first half—that is, all of Fellowship and parts of The Two Towers. He’d planned the film to take place in two parts, but the second film never got made … for reasons that become clear when you watch the first.

6. If current film and television was in fact limited to these possibilities—which seem to be delineated here as Marvel’s archness, Game of Thrones’ sex and violence, and the self-righteousness of a vaguely imagined wokeness—he might just have a point. But I don’t have to reach back fifteen years to The Wire and The Sopranos and the rest of prestige television’s first glut of great work to refute Drout’s characterization. In just the past two or three years, Severance, Better Call Saul, Our Flag Means Death, The Mandalorian, The Plot Against America, Succession, The Good Place, Sex Education, Slow Horses, Yellowjackets, and countless other series have shown the depth and breadth of the subtlety and sophistication that is out there.

7. I’ve written previously on this blog about the contradictions inherent in Bezos’ avowed love of Star Trek, given that Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future was utopian in part because it imagined a future in which a billionaire class was unthinkable … but this isn’t really what Drout’s on about.

8. Though, really, any time you feel compelled to preface a statement with “I’m not racist, but …” there’s about a 100% chance you’re about to say something racist.

9. Also, not for nothing, but it’s not as if The Rings of Power is doing for the Tolkien expanded universe what Black Panther did for the MCU, in which Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis were the sole Tolkien white guys (get it?). The “diversity” of The Rings of Power, in the end, is a handful of dark faces in a large cast that is otherwise still overwhelmingly white. The fact that so many people are reacting as if the showrunners had put a sign saying “Caucasians need not apply” on the audition room door is perhaps the most telling point.

10. Interestingly, Milton had about as much regard in the end for Arthurian legend as Tolkien did—which is to say moderate regard, but like Tolkien he found it wanting. In the early days of considering what the subject for his epic would be, Milton considered King Arthur, but discarded the idea as too parochial.

11. The rumbling you hear is Harold Bloom spinning in his grave at me mentioning Tolkien in the same sentence as Milton and Joyce.

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Filed under Return to Middle-Earth, television, what I'm watching

Some Further Quick Thoughts on House of the Dragon (episode two)

I’ve received a number of questions from people asking whether I plan to post on a weekly basis about House of the Dragon. Thanks to those who’ve reached out: it is gratifying to know the Game of Thrones posts I did with Nikki over nine (egad!) years were enjoyed. I’m afraid my answer has to be an unsatisfying maybe. I’ll certainly have stuff to say, which may or not make it to my blog, but what I definitely won’t be doing is posting long, detailed blow-by-blow recaps/reviews—not with Nikki, and not by myself. We did that for Game of Thrones eight seasons, and I think it’s safe to say we both hit our saturation point.

And there’s also the fact that one of the reasons we were able to sustain that output—by the end, our posts were averaging over ten thousand words, which even between two people is a lot of text to produce in a couple of days—is because GoT was a genuine cultural phenomenon. It’s not that I wouldn’t be amenable to the idea of doing that sort of thing again, but not with a property like HotD, whose Westrosi territory we’ve mapped pretty thoroughly.

But having written as much as I did—one half of seventy-three 8-12K word posts is a hefty chunk of text—there’s a certain amount of muscle memory there that would be hard to ignore, even if I wanted to. Two episodes has got my mind flexing in some familiar ways, though less with the granular details of the show than with the broader issues it raises that reflect back on GoT, having to do with fantasy and genre and world-building. Also, given that Rings of Power powers up this week, there’s some interesting possibilities arising in the serendipitous juxtaposition of HBO’s ongoing televisual adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s latter-day fantasy and Amazon’s attempt to build upon Peter Jackson’s success in bringing Middle-earth to the screen.

I also watched Wheel of Time, also on Amazon, this past winter. And while I didn’t have anything to say about it at the time—honestly, I was underwhelmed—revisiting it might make for some useful points of comparison.

I commented in my previous post that I was more worried about Rings of Power, because that show has set itself a much more difficult task. The two shows are superficially similar insofar as they’re both prequel-ish narratives adapted from the histories preceding the stories that made people interested in those histories to start with. But beyond that point of comparison, there really is, well, no comparison.

For the moment I’m going to keep my powder dry on The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s legendarium more broadly until I’ve seen the first episode of Rings. Suffice to say that adapting Tolkien’s mythology is not the same kind of task as adapting The Lord of the Rings.

By contrast, HotD is entirely the same kind of task as adapting A Song of Ice and Fire, and is made easier by the fact that all of the heavy lifting—which is to say, its principal world-building, its aesthetic, its general narrative sensibility—was well established by the eight seasons of GoT. Perhaps more significantly, there is much less at stake in HotD: whatever dragon-borne sexytime shenanigans these Targaryens get up to, we know that they’ll still be around for Robert Baratheon to usurp in two centuries or so. We even know, should we wish to consult Fire and Blood, GRRM’s “history” of the Targaryen dynasty, who wins and who loses and how these conflicts either resolve or don’t resolve themselves.

To be clear, when I say there isn’t much at stake, I mean artistically and narratively. HBO has the pots of money it’s investing at stake, so if people’s appetite for GRRM’s particular brand of venality and violence, of incest and intrigue proves to have been exhausted by GoT’s ignominious exit, well, that’s going to result in a fresh batch of firings. But for those of us tuning in, we’re going to be propelled less by where we’re going than how we get there—by which I mean how the episode-to-episode drama unfolds, and how much we invest emotionally in the characters.

The good news, based on episode two, is that they’re off to a good start. The awkwardness of the writing in the first episode was largely smoothed out, and we’re starting to get a better sense of the main players and their motivations. The casting is proving its quality: there are no discordant notes. The MVPs for this episode are Milly Alcock as the young and precocious Rhaenyra and Eve Best as the jaded but shrewd Rhaenys, the Queen that Never Was.

(Something that comes with adapting fantasy is the realization that names as written on the page don’t always do well when spoken out loud. GRRM is usually pretty user-friendly with his Jons and Roberts and Neds, but occasionally we stumble over the jaw-crackers—as Samwise Gamgee might call them—more typical of the genre).

Prince Cheeky McCheekbones and his Precious.

The conversation between the elder and younger Rhaenladies is a good indication of how this series will play out, and a reminder that GoT, for all its spectacle, was at its best when its antagonists fenced with words as well as swords. Rheanyra surprising the meeting on the bridge at Dragonstone and calling her uncle’s bluff was also a close contender for the episode’s high point.

But where GoT was about a multi-front civil war taking place against the looming threat of the Night King’s malevolent return, HotD is about the internecine conflict of a single dynastic family, whose end—as observed above—is foreordained by history. This much is made clear by the opening credits, which retain the theme music of the original and the general aesthetic sensibility, but which unfold within the contained and claustrophobic walls of a castle we assume is the Red Keep.

The unifying symbol of the GoT credits was the armillary sphere containing the sun, soaring above the vastness of Westeros and Essos. From this celestial perspective we were shown the key points of geography relevant to the given episode. By contrast, the armillary sphere is replaced at the start of the HotD credits with the House Targaryen sigil, which connects to all the other nodes within the castle walls with criss-crossing streams of blood—which itself has the triple meaning of referencing familiar bloodlines, one half of the Targaryen motto (which makes me wonder if future credits will feature fire?), and presumably the rivers of blood that will flow once the fighting begins in earnest.

[CORRECTION: The first image we see in the sequence is not the Targaryen sigil, but a sort of bas-relief of dragons flying around a stronghold that, based on King Viserys’ hobby-model (what kings do instead of model trains, presumably), is meant to be old Valyria. This almost certainly means that the stone walls and corridors through which the blood flows are probably those of the model and not, as I’d blithely assumed, the Red Keep. Not that this really changes my interpretation: it’s still contained within the confines of the Targaryen dynasty, except more explicitly, and with the added sense of being yoked to a mythologized history. Still, more food for thought there.]

By way of conclusion, few quick thoughts in no particular order:

  • The CGI ain’t great. It’s generally OK, but there are those telltale moments when it looks more like a middling video game than a high-budget series. I have to imagine HBO is hedging a bit, which is fair enough: it took GoT a few seasons to establish itself. Before that, they either avoided expensive, large-scale sequences by, say, knocking out Tyrion just before a battle, or limiting themselves to one or two big spectacles a season. It’s fortunate the show proved its worth by the time the dragons got big.
  • The scene in which King Viserys walks and talks with his possible grade-school bride is one of the squickier sequences I’ve seen in any show, but all credit to Paddy Consadine for exuding profound discomfort throughout.
  • I’m in equal measures intrigued and concerned with the character Mysaria, Daemon Targaryen’s prostitute-turned-paramour. Her scene following the bridge confrontation, in which she takes Daemon to task for using her as a provocation was powerful, and it makes me hope the writers paid attention to the criticism leveled at GoT’s cavalier use of sexual violence and disposable female characters. And I am concerned, well, because perhaps this will end up being just more of the same.
  • If Daemon and Rhaenyra are any indication, the Targaryens ruled by divine right of cheekbones; two hundred years hence, Cersei Lannister attempts to follow suit.

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Filed under Game of Thrones, television, what I'm watching

A Quick Post on House of the Dragon

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in front of an Iron Throne with … way more iron than the last time we saw it.

I was asked recently which TV series I was most excited about: House of the Dragon, HBO’s prequel to Game of Thrones; or Rings of Power, Amazon’s prequel-ish adaptation of elements of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (which I hesitate to call a “prequel” to The Lord of the Rings for reasons that aren’t entirely germane here but which I’ll likely articulate once the series starts).

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I suppose that, all other considerations aside, I’m more looking forward to Rings of Power … but that anticipation is tempered by the awareness that the line between amazing and terrible is a trickier one to negotiate with that source material. It was broadly thought that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable until Peter Jackson proved everyone wrong on that front, but that presumption had more to do with the prior limitations of special effects technology than with storytelling. The principal reason LotR was so good—and why The Hobbit shanked so badly—is because Jackson treated the source material of the former with profound respect. The story of LotR needs little tinkering, as evidenced by how often the films take dialogue verbatim from the novels. The Silmarillion, by contrast, is written as, and unfolds like, mythology, which will necessitate some significant tinkering. Finding that happy medium between rendering it naturalistic and hewing to the spirit of Tolkien’s story will be a difficult needle to thread.

Which is why I’m more confident that House of the Dragon will hit its marks, given that it was always meant to be entirely consonant with its predecessor. I have not however been particularly looking forward to it, for what I assume are obvious reasons. Like most people who loved GoT, the final season left a sour taste in my mouth and the ending felt like a betrayal—not so much a betrayal of the characters, as many people felt, but a betrayal by the showrunners of the show itself. After seven seasons of often superb, unhurried, nuanced storytelling and world-building, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff—now without the scaffolding of the great bearded glacier George R.R. Martin to shore up their own writing faults—raced to a slapdash finish in a truncated final season that effectively upended everything that had come before and slapped the goodwill of fans in the face.

Which isn’t to say I won’t watch HotD, but I don’t feel inclined to write lengthy recaps/commentaries like Nikki and I did for GoT.

That being said, I watched the first episode last night, so here are my thoughts in no particular order. Mild spoilers ahead.

  • The first episode was … OK. I was more or less on board by the end, which is a good sign—it means, possibly, that the awkwardness of the writing was more to do with this being a pilot setting up the characters and contexts, and will find its rhythm as we go. Fingers crossed.
  • I can tell it’s going to take a few episodes to adjust to Matt Smith playing the villain. He’s still so indelibly the Eleventh Doctor for me, though I suspect it will be a lot like watching David Tennant play Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. Smith as Daemon Targaryen has similar energy, which is the whole manic alien-among-humans thing being repurposed as gleeful psychopathy.
  • As trepidatious as I was going in, that theme music … man, it’s good to hear it again.
  • Not to repeat myself, but I do hope the writing finds its groove. Too many awkward moments of dialogue to really overlook … however much Benioff and Weiss floundered with the plotting after they overshot GRRM’s runway, even by the end the moment-to-moment of GoT never felt inauthentic.
  • The juxtaposition of the bloody birthing scene and the jousting was a little … obvious. C’mon, man. We get it.
  • Something Stephanie pointed out right at the outset: do clothing styles not change in Westeros? This is almost two centuries before GoT, you’d think there’d be some differences.
  • I can’t quibble with the casting. Once I’ve worked through my Doctor Who issues, Matt Smith looks to be great. Paddy Considine (King Viserys) has been great in everything I’ve seen him in. Rhys Ifans (Hand of the King Otto Hightower) is also always a solid bet. I had to do an IMDb search to figure out where I’d seen Eve Best (Princess Rhaenys, aka the Queen That Never Was); it was Nurse Jackie, a series I can’t recommend enough, and she was amazing in it, as she looks to be here. Though I really, really hope she gets to do more. And I really like Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra: the ambitious and precocious teenage girl who wants more than the life normally allotted a woman is a role we last saw done superbly by Maesie Williams as Arya Stark; Alcock so far isn’t overplaying it, and I appreciate the subtlety she brings, especially considering we can expect it to be contrasted by Matt Smith’s gleeful scenery-chewing as her principal antagonist.
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen, bringing some serious creepy uncle vibes to the role.

So I guess we’ll see. Not a bad start, but with the way GoT left things, the series has its work cut out convincing fans they’re willing to be hurt all over again.

One thing I’ve found interesting: there have been more than a few (by which I mean two or three that I’ve seen) think pieces wondering whether HotD will fill the vacuum left by GoT as a show that gives people a common point of contact—as whatever these days passes for water-cooler conversation, or in the more highbrow terminology, a “monoculture.” As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post, “It’s not just that Game of Thrones left behind unfinished conversations. Rather, the show seemed to mark the end of mass, sustained cultural debate period.”

However much GoT was a hugely popular show, I feel this overstates things … or possibly evinces a critic’s nostalgia for entertainment properties that captured more than the niche attention that has increasingly been the norm since television fractured into a wider cable universe, and which itself then gave ground to streaming services and their infinitude of offerings. It’s odd to consider that the ratings for the GoT finale, its most-watched episode at just shy of 14 million viewers, was the same as your average episode of Seinfeld in the 1990s. When I was a TA in the first years of my PhD, I could cite The Simpsons in my classes by way of explaining things and be confident that all my students were familiar with my references.

It’s been a long time since there’s been that kind of touchstone—GoT was the closest thing we’ve had, and I somehow doubt HotD will capture the same lightning in a bottle. But I suppose we shall see.

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A Few Things

Summer Blogging Update     Several posts ago, I announced my summer blogging plans; I then dutifully followed up with a three-part series on memory, history, and forgetting in fairly quick succession. And then … well, nothing for two weeks. That’s largely due to the fact that my next series of posts, which will be a deep dive into postmodernism—what it is, what it was, what it isn’t, and why most of the people using the word in the media these days have no idea what they’re talking about—has been taking somewhat longer to write than I’d planned. Actually, that isn’t entirely true: the second and third installments are all but completed, and I’ve gotten a healthy start on the third and fourth, but the introductory post is taking longer (and is getting longer). I am optimistic that I will have it done by the end of the weekend, however, so hopefully Phase Two of My Ambitious Posts No One Will Read will soon commence.

What I’ve Watched     A few weeks ago I binged the series Rutherford Falls on Amazon Prime. I’d read some positive reviews of it and heard good things via NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (always a reliable guide); the show is also co-created by Michael Schur, a showrunner who, in my opinion, has been batting 1.000 for years: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place. But what’s particularly notable about Rutherford Falls is that the premise of the show is rooted in the relationship in the titular town between its indigenous and non-indigenous townsfolk. The series was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, a Navajo screenwriter and filmmaker. The writers’ room is also well represented with Native American writers, and the cast is remarkable.

Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding.

Ed Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, a scion of the family that gives the town its name, and who is about the most Ed Helms character I’ve yet seen—a painfully earnest and well-meaning but frequently clueless fellow whose entire sense of self is bound up in his family’s history and that of the town. He runs a museum-ish space in his ancestral home. His best friend is Reagan (Jana Schmieding), a member of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation who is more or less persona non grata in her Native community because she left her fiancée at the altar a number of years before and instead went and did her masters degree at Northwestern. She runs—or attempts to run—a “cultural center” inside the local casino, which is owned by Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the de facto leader of the Minishonka community.

The show is hilarious, but is also quite comfortable in its own skin (so to speak)—it engages with difficult issues of Native history, white entitlement and appropriation of Native culture, the memorialization of settler culture (the precipitating crisis is when the town’s African-American mayor seeks to remove a statue of the town’s founding Rutherford in the town square, not because it’s a symbol of colonialism, but because cars keep crashing into it), and the fraught navigation by Terry Thomas of American capitalism as a means of accruing power and influence for his people—all without ever losing its humour or coming across as pedantic. A key moment comes in the fourth episode, when an NPR podcaster, having sniffed out that there might be a story in this sleepy town, interviews Terry. He asks him how he reconciles the contradiction of running a casino—the epitome of capitalistic graft—with his own Native identity. Terry, who had been answering the podcaster’s questions with a politician’s practiced smoothness, reaches out and pauses the recorder—and then proceeds, in a stern but not-angry voice, to school the well-meaning NPR hipster on precisely how the casino is consonant with Native values because it is not about the accrual of wealth for wealth’s sake, but for the benefit of a community that has long been marginalized. He then hits play again, and resumes his breezy tone for the rest of the interview.

It is a bravura performance; indeed, Michael Greyeyes is the series’ great revelation. A Canadian-born actor of the Cree Nation, he has long been a staple in Canadian and American indigenous film, or film and television featuring indigenous characters, and has (at least in most of the stuff I’ve seen him in) tended to play stern, brooding, or dangerous characters. So it is a joy to see him show off his comedic talents. His best line? When arguing with Nathan Rutherford over the historical accuracy of a costume he wants him to wear in his planned historical theme park, he says in exasperation, “Our market research shows that the average American’s understanding of history can be boiled down to seven concepts: George Washington, the flag, Independence Day, Independence Day the movie, MLK, Forrest Gump, and butter churns.”

What I’m Currently Watching     Well, we just watched the season four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale last night, and I’m going to need a while to process that. And we watched the series premier of Loki, which looks promising—largely on the basis of the fact that a Tom Hiddleston / Owen Wilson buddy comedy is unlikely to disappoint no matter what is done to it.

F. Murray Abraham, Danny Pudi, David Hornsby, Rob McElhenney, and Charlotte Nicdao

But the show we’re loving right now beyond what is strictly rational is the second season of Mythic Quest on AppleTV. For the unfamiliar: it’s the creation of Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, the folks who brought you It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; the series is a workplace comedy set in the offices of a video game called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, an MMORPG along the lines of World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls. McElhenney plays the game’s creator and mastermind Ian (pronounced “Ion”) Grimm, a self-styled visionary who is sort of a cross between Steve Jobs and a lifestyle guru. Charlotte Nicdao plays Poppy, the perennially anxious and high-strung lead engineer who is responsible for turning Ian’s (again, pronounced “Ion”) ideas into workable code. Danny Pudi, who most famously played Abed in Community, is Brad, the “head of monetization,” and is delightfully cast here as a kind of anti-Abed who knows little and cares less about pop culture and video gaming and is only concerned about how he can wring every last cent out of the game’s devoted players. And F. Murray Abraham—yes, Salieri himself—plays the game’s head writer, washed-up SF author C.W. Longbottom, a lascivious alcoholic whose sole claim to fame (to which he clings like a barnacle) is having won a Nebula award in the early 1970s.

That combination of characters alone is a selling point—but the show is also incredibly smart, and also—just when you least expect it—deeply emotional.

What I’m Reading     At this point in the early summer as I scramble to use my time to complete at least one article before September, as well as move my summer blogging project forward (to say nothing of starting on course prep for the Fall), the question feels a little more like what am I not reading.

But that’s all business. My pleasure reading of the moment is a trilogy by M.R. Carey. Carey wrote the brilliant zombie apocalypse novel The Girl With all the Gifts—which was made into a quite good film starring Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton—and its companion novel set in the same world The Boy on the Bridge. One of my grad students this past semester alerted me to the fact that Carey had recently published a series set in another post-apocalyptic scenario. The “Ramparts Trilogy”—comprised of the novels The Book of Koli, The Trials of Koli, and The Fall of Koli—isn’t really a trilogy per se. The novels were all released within several months of each other, suggesting that “Ramparts” was really more of 1000+ page novel that the publisher chose to release in serial form rather than all at once.

Like the other Carey novels I’ve read, the Koli books are post-apocalyptic, set in an England some three to four centuries after humanity more or less obliterated itself in “the Unfinished War.” It is a word in which humanity has been reduced to a mere handful of its former numbers, and everything in nature now seems to be intent on killing the remaining survivors. Human manipulation of trees and vegetation to make them grow faster as part of an effort of reverse climate change has resulted in hostile forests: only on cold or overcast days can anyone walk among the trees without them snaring them with their tendrils. Any wood cut has to be “cured” in saline vats to kill it before it can be used as lumber. And the animal life that has evolved to live in such an environment is equally dangerous.

Koli is, at the start of the novels, an earnest if slightly dim fifteen-year old living in the village of Mythen Rood in the Calder Valley in the northwest of what was once England. His family are woodsmiths; Mythen Rood is protects by the Ramparts, villagers who can use the tech of the old world—a flamethrower, a guided bolt-gun, a “cutter,” which emits an invisible cutting beam, and a database that offers up helpful but cryptic knowledge and information from the old world.

There is much tech left over from the old world, but most of it is useless. Koli’s story essentially begins when he becomes obsessed with “waking” a piece of tech and joining the ranks of the Ramparts.

And that’s all I’ll tell you of the story: suffice to say, with one-third of the last novel to go, I am captivated by both the story Carey tells and the potential future he envisions.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading     I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites  are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.

To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.

But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.

I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.

What I’m Watching     I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand­—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.

We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).

There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.

What I’m Writing     I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.

(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).

On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.

As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each  of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.

This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.

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What’s Making Me Happy

Scrolling back through my posts since 2021 began, I’m struck by the general bleakness of a lot of what I’ve been writing about … which not unsurprising, given that much of it has had to do with American politics, and I’ve been writing as we approach the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic, with the prospect of it persisting as late as the autumn.

I’m not one for such practices as daily affirmations, but sometimes it’s helpful to remind oneself about what is making you happy. One of my favourite podcasts is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour; once a week they have a segment titled “what’s making us happy this week,” in which the hosts share, well, what’s making them happy that week—what books or film or TV or other things that give them delight.

Well, I’m stealing the idea. I’ve already done so on occasion when I teach—I will ask my students every so often what’s making them happy—though I’m usually treated to silence punctuated now and then with an enthusiastic endorsement of something. But I’m now bringing it to my blog. Don’t expect it to be weekly, though.

So what’s making me happy right now?

Stephanie on the Guitar and Sir Terry Pratchett     Since posting my QAnon piece this morning, I’ve been working away on an article that I’ve had stewing on my brain’s back burner for a long time: I’m titling it “The Pragmatic Pratchett,” and it argues that the political and moral philosophy that Sir Terry developed over his forty-one Discworld novels (and his other fiction and non-fiction) is a form of “magical humanism” that squares up quite nicely with the American school of Pragmatism á là John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Judith Shklar. We’re currently on midterm break here, so I’m trying to pound out one thousand words and day and have something approaching a rough draft by the time classes resume in a week. I hit 1400 words today, and will continue work on it after dinner.

Meanwhile, as I write in my office, Stephanie is in the next room doing something musical. One of her hobbies is to record songs and post videos of herself playing to YouTube. Lately, she’s been getting into the project of making backing tracks for people to play guitar over. But today she’s broken out the guitar again, and so as I write about Sir Terry, I can hear her playing. It’s quite lovely—it’s almost like being serenaded.

I love watching her get absorbed in whatever project she’s working on. It is a form of self-care, a mental respite from her job as a full-time nurse. She is a perfectionist when it comes to her musical projects, and will spend hours plugged into her laptop and various musical doodads (I am, it should go without saying, musically illiterate). I like to joke that she’s obsessive and I’m compulsive, and that together we make up a complete neurosis.

The Mandalorian     I finally caved and subscribed to Disney Plus. Stephanie and I binged the two extant seasons of The Mandalorian over the course of a week, watching the season two finale last Wednesday. Since then I have been rewatching some of my favourite scenes on my laptop, as well as watching the various fan reaction videos.

Jon Favreau just gets it—he gets the texture of the Star Wars universe, he gets the aspects of it that make for good stories (and eschews those that don’t), and somehow he made a legion of viewers fall in love with a goddamn muppet.

I loved the Ewoks when I first watched Return of the Jedi—but then again, when I first watched Jedi, I was eleven years old. The cloying cute little teddy bears of Endor have not aged well, so when I first heard the name “Baby Yoda” and saw the images, I was skeptical—another merchandising opportunity, I thought, at the expense of good storytelling. Well, I don’t mind admitting how wrong I was—Baby Yoda, aka Grogu, was impossibly cute, but somehow not cloyingly so. And the relationship between “the kid” and Din Djarin was quite beautifully done—a testament to Pedro Pascal’s acting chops, considering that we see his face all of three times over sixteen episodes.

(Fun fact: if you binge The Mandalorian not long after binging Schitt’s Creek, as Stephanie and I did, it is nearly impossible not to shout—in one’s best Moira Rose voice—“the Bébé!” every time Baby Yoda shows his face).

And the casting. Jeebus, the casting. I got the sense as I watched that Jon Favreau would just call up friends and say “Hey, I’m doing this Star Wars thing, you want in?” Such a great ensemble of actors. There is something exquisite about hearing Werner Herzog say, “I hear you are ze best in ze parzec.” There is something equally exquisite in seeing Giancarlo Esposito bring all of his equable Gus Fring menace to the role of Moff Gideon. Ming-Na Wen as a deadly assassin? Yes please. Timothy Olyphant playing a variation on Seth Bullock and Raylen Givens as the marshal of a mining town on Tatooine? Gods, yes. Bill Burr as an irascible mercenary thief? Natalia Tena, aka Nymphadora Tonks, as a hissing, blade throwing alien? Richard Ayoade as the voice of a priggish but deadly droid? Taika Waititi, who also directed a few episodes, as a droid programmed to care for Baby Yoda? Jason Sudeikas and Adam Palley bantering as a pair of inept stormtroopers? Also: considering that we interrupted our viewing of Battlestar Galactica (Stephanie had never seen it, so I felt it my moral obligation to introduce her to it) to watch The Mandalorian, Katee Sackhoff’s appearance as fellow Mandalorian Bo Katan felt particularly apropos.

But one of my favourite cameos also relates to the way Jon Favreau is building out the post-Return of the Jedi universe, in which the New Republic must now actually govern. It’s a new normal in which the X-wing pilots are no longer the heroic flyboys and -girls of the movies, but are essentially cops on a beat, who give Mando grief for his ship’s broken transponder in the same way an exasperated traffic cop might give you a pass on a broken taillight. In a later episode of season two, a dumpy, balding X-wing pilot suggests to Cara Dune that she should take on the role of Marshal in her town, now that the former Empire was more or less expunged. “Wait,” I said as we watched, “isn’t that the father from Kim’s Convenience?” And indeed it was—Korean-Canadian actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who according to his iMDB page, “Is a member of the Star Wars costuming group The 501st Legion”).

It was the clipboard in the pilot’s hand that made it art.

Pie-Making     … or, as I like to pronounce it, “PAH!” Given that I’m not a desserts person, the vast majority of my pies are savoury. I’ve made it something of a custom, when I make a roast chicken, to make stock from the carcass the next day and use the meat coming off to the bone to make stew, which then goes to making chicken pot pie. I have also done the same with leftover roast beef.

I recently decided I wanted to learn to make traditional British pork pies—specifically, the classic Melton Mowbray pie, which is basically just a whole lot of finely (or coarsely) chopped cuts of pork, cooked in a narrow but tall pie crust. I ordered a dedicated pie tin online, along with a book of savoury pie recipes. My first attempt was tasty, but I did not make it with the traditional aspic that is part of the recipe—a glaring omission, as a handful of people on Facebook observed. To be fair, I’d looked at a bunch of recipes, some of which called for the use of powdered gelatin, while the more involved recipes would have had me boiling pork bones. Given that my access to pork bones in St. John’s is limited, I’d bought the gelatin … and then decided to do a trial run without, just to see about getting the taste right.

I want to try again and do it properly—there’s a small butcher shop just around the corner, and I was planning on popping in there to ask about the whole pork bones thing. But then we had a outbreak of new COVID cases in Newfoundland that put us back into level five lockdown … so there’s no popping into the local butcher’s for a while, anyway.

Meanwhile, I ordered more pie tins—4” across like the original one, but half the height. Which makes for an ideal single-serving pie. Last night I made prime rib for dinner. As I write, four beef and mushroom pies are in the oven. When the lockdown lifts, I’ll return to my project of perfecting the Melton Mowbray pie; until then, I’ll work with the classics.

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Filed under what I'm watching, what I'm working on, What's Making Me Happy

A Few Things

What I’m Reading  Aside from my reading for the term and for research, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It is a very long book (700+ pages) that doesn’t even get to the end of his first term; it is reflective, often pausing in its narration of events so Obama can ponder the vagaries of decisions he made or didn’t make, and ruminate on the broader significance of this or that detail in the broader context of American history; he also frequently digresses into little potted lectures on history and political philosophy to better frame the stories he’s telling.

Or to put it another way: I’m loving it. There are many reasons why I have such vast respect for this man, and why I think history will ultimately rank him as one of the best presidents; his humanity, intelligence, and passion are among those reasons, and they come through on every page, along with a professorial and nerdy wonkishness that I aspire to. After four years of Trump, this book is a salve to my soul.

What I’m Watching  Really, my life these days in measured out in week-long increments of impatience between each new episode of The Expanse. I latched onto the novels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abrahamson and Ty Franck) soon after the first one (Leviathan Wakes) was published, and have read them obsessively since (we’re now eight novels along, and I’m waiting for the ninth and final installment rather impatiently). So when I saw they were adapting the novels to TV, I experienced the usual excitement and trepidation one often does when beloved books are being adapted to the screen. Will it be good (Good Omens, Game of Thrones) or bitterly disappointing (American Gods) or just … meh (The Magicians)?

The Expanse not only did not disappoint, it has gotten steadily better every season as the writers have found their groove and the special effects budgets have grown. This season—the fifth—is the best so far. It benefits in part from the narrative build of the previous seasons, in which otherwise seemingly insignificant plot points and elements of world-building have culminated in some pretty virtuosic storytelling, matched by amazing acting and visuals that now rank The Expanse among the best SF/F that has been brought to TV.

I don’t want to get into detail, because spoilers, but I will almost certainly write a much longer and spoiler-filled post once this season is done.

The Pleasures of Zoom-Teaching  To be certain, I miss being in the classroom with the intensity of a nova—teaching and interacting with my students is easily my favourite part of my job, and the classroom has always been a quasi-sacred space to me. Talking to the Brady Bunch arrangement of squares on my laptop screen is nowhere near the same thing … but there are aspects of it I like. Not the least of which is I can conduct classes wearing pyjamas. Also, they don’t know what’s in my mug, heh …

There is also Zoom’s chat function. As class discussion progresses, sometimes students will carry on a parallel conversation in text. It’s as if they’re passing notes in class, but I get to read them.

But by far my favourite aspect is the presence of pets. My cat Gloucester is a frequent visitor, jumping up onto my lap and staring at the faces on my screen with his golden eyes. And there is a petting zoo worth of dogs and cats—and in the case of today’s class, a bunny!—perched on my students’ laps or occasionally pushing their snouts close in to the webcams.

Oh, Yeah—Classes Started Today  Memorial delayed the start of term for a few days to give students a slightly longer break (something I was grateful for, too), so today was day one of the winter term. My first class was my graduate seminar “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and if today was any indication, this is going to be a good term. There was a wonderful energy to the class, and everyone was enthused and engaged.

Tomorrow I start with my fourth-year seminar “Utopias and Dystopias,” a class that was designed by a former colleague of mine, now retired. It was always a student favourite when he taught it, and I’ve been requesting it since he retired several years ago. My teaching dance card was always too full to slot it in previously, so I’m delighted to finally get to teach it.

Last semester I taught a course on pandemic fiction; this term, it’s utopias and dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives of the 21st century. Sense a theme? It feels a little bit, after 2020, like I’m steering into the skid.

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Four Years Later

Slightly less than four years ago, a countdown started. Perhaps it was obscured at points by speculations about the twenty-fifth amendment, or the spectre of impeachment and removal—or, well, really, any number of possible eventualities—but ultimately for those of us horrified by the election of Donald J. Trump, Election Day 2020 was a cognitive terminus, that point at which America’s national nightmare would either end or be validated anew. And given that the latter was, and is, more or less unthinkable—an existential crisis of both political and spiritual dimensions—this coming Tuesday is a day of reckoning. To repurpose a line from Good Omens, November 3, 2020 has been throbbing in the collective brain like a migraine.

With less than a week to go, I’ve been oscillating between zen-like calm and apocalyptic agitation. On one hand, I’ve been watching Trump unspooling in real time with all of the schadenfreude you would expect; every time he pleads, whines, or drops yet another increasingly absurd lie (did you know that California is forcing its citizens to wear a “special” mask that you cannot take off, and have to eat through? Or that Trump recently ended a 400-year war between Serbia and Kosovo?), I get calmer, seeing in his behaviour his realization that he’s going to lose. But then I read news pieces about the gun-wielding militias declaring their intentions to take to the streets if Trump loses; about the ongoing efforts by Republicans to suppress the vote; about the near-certainty that, if Republican legal challenges to a Biden victory make it to the Supreme Court, the facts of the case won’t matter all that much to Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

This all makes me feel, as Bilbo Baggins would say, somewhat thin and stretched, like too little butter spread over too much toast.

And I don’t even live in the U.S.

In the autumn of 2016, I was teaching a second-year course titled “Critical Approaches to Popular Culture.” The Department of English had recently absorbed the Communications Studies program; pop culture was (is) one of the required courses for the major. I’d taught pop culture years before, twice, when I was in the latter stages of my PhD at Western, so it was lovely to return to it. For one of the course’s units, I focused on recent sitcoms that articulated diverse, feminist sensibilities: we looked at episodes of Archer, Master of None, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks and Recreation. A former student of mine from about six or seven years earlier, who had gone on to do a masters in English and another in gender studies, and was at the time a journalist and feminist activist, was a massive fan of Parks and Recreation, and identified strongly with the series’ main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler). The connection my former student has with Leslie was and is an obvious one: she is blonde, passionate, unremittingly (sometimes exhaustingly) enthusiastic, and devoted to feminism and the possibilities of local government to do good. Early in the semester, I emailed her and asked if she’d like to do a guest lecture on feminism and Parks and Recreation. She emailed me back almost immediately, asking (possibly jokingly) if she should do it in character as Leslie Knope.

The way things had fallen out in my scheduling, her guest lecture would take place the Thursday after the 2016 election. This was not by design, but I was delighted by the serendipity of it: the idea that I would have this extraordinary former student coming in to deliver a lecture on the character of Leslie Knope—who, in the show, idolized Hillary Clinton—two days after what most of us assumed would have been the election of the first woman president of the United States.

Well. We know how that worked out.

It was a huge boon to me that I did not teach on Wednesdays that term. Normally I would have gone up to the office anyway, but that day—which was, as I recall, appropriately grey and rainy—I instead stayed home and sat at my desk in my pyjamas, trying to work through my thoughts. I read dozens of news articles online. I wrote a blog post. And I tried to come to terms with the fact that the United States had actually elected Donald Trump.

The next day, I introduced my former student in my pop culture class, and, not unpredictably, she knocked her guest lecture out of the park. She was amazing, her lecture was amazing, and I can still congratulate myself on my decision to invite her. But there was also the uneasy sense of whistling past the graveyard, as it were: Parks and Recreation, which had by that point ended its run, was wreathed in the spirit of the Obama years. Real political figures made not-infrequent cameos as the series went on, both Democrat and Republican, conveying a sense of comity consonant with Obama’s (frequently frustrated) inclination to want to reach across the aisle (such as in the episode where Cory Booker and Orrin Hatch tell Leslie that they share a passion for Polynesian folk music, and perform together in a band named “Across the Isle”). And of course there was the running joke of Leslie’s conviction that Joe Biden is the sexiest man alive:

(Somehow, Leslie’s admonition to the Secret Service that Biden is “precious cargo” is a little more poignant in the present moment).

In the days leading up to the 2020 election, I’ve been rewatching Parks and Recreation. On one hand, the show is not unlike The West Wing as an imaginative salve for the present moment; but where Aaron Sorkin’s drama offers a liberal fantasia in which people work and argue in good faith (mostly), Parks is somewhat more on point insofar as it hews to a more realistic premise: people are terrible. All Leslie Knope wants to do is improve people’s lives, and not infrequently suffers unforeseen effects of liberal statist interventionism.

One such case occurs when the town’s sole video rental store, which hosts weekly screenings of film classics, is about to go out of business, as every other video rental store in the world has. The store’s proprietor, a pretentious film snob played by Jason Schwartzman who refuses to stock popular movies, does not help himself by being, well, a pretentious film snob who refuses to stock popular movies. Leslie secures him a grant from the city council, making him promise to overhaul his stock with more popular selections—which he does in fact do, but goes to the other extreme and turns his store into a porn emporium. Business then booms, but not even remotely in the way Leslie Knope had intended.

Such mishaps aside, the series chronicles the ways in which Leslie’s earnest and idealistic faith in government batters against the apathy, indifference, and hostility of the citizens she so wants to help. But for all of their awfulness, the people of Leslie Knope’s Pawnee aren’t hateful; they do not actively wish harm on others. Rewatching the series right now, I can’t ignore the simple fact that a stubborn forty percent of Americans support a defiantly hateful man, whom they love not for his principles but for his enemies—for how much pain he can inflict and how much cruelty he can practice.

That same semester in 2016, I taught a fourth-year seminar I titled “Revenge of the Genres.” The premise of the course was to look at texts and authors that transcended popular genres, or else used them in metaphorical or critical ways: we did Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, Colson Whitehead’s zombie apocalypse novel Zone One, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, among others … and we ended the class with Hamilton. Even more than Parks and Recreation, Hamilton feels like a relic of the Obama years—not least because its conception, staging, and extraordinary success unfolded over Obama’s presidency, and indeed received its first audience in 2009 for the title song at the White House.

One of our points of discussion in class was how to read Hamilton not just post-Obama, but in the new age of Trump. By the time we started on it in class, we were a few weeks past the election; there was a sort of cosmic irony in examining a musical about a man whose co-creation of the Electoral College was undertaken to prevent the rise of a populist demagogue to the presidency.

There was also the leaden feeling that the play’s optimism and faith in the American experiment had been definitively belied by Trump’s election. As much as I love Hamilton, my one misgiving about it has always been the conviction that part of its popularity—aside from simply being an astonishingly good play—proceeded from the fact that it gave white liberals permission to celebrate the origin story of the United States without caveats. I mean, let’s be honest—the story of the United States’ founding is a pretty compelling one to start with. As a Canadian kid who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock, I was frequently envious, because my own country lacked a revolutionary beginning and such colourful characters as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin. But of course, as one ages and learns more, the broader contours of that history become tainted by the ugly facts of slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. The story remains compelling, but the more honest we are about the actual history, the more those caveats are going to inflect it.

Hence, a hip-hop musical written by a man of Puerto Rican heritage—whose first musical, In The Heights, was about life in an Hispanic neighbourhood in New York—which not only unapologetically celebrates “the ten dollar founding father” and the “American experiment,” but also casts predominantly Black and brown performers to play the roles of the white Founders, gives permission to white milquetoast liberals like myself to set aside the caveats for two and a half hours and enjoy America’s origin story set to virtuosic music.

And lest that sound cynical, I should hasten to add that it’s not merely about the permission structure—it’s also the hope it inspires.

Hope also feels a little like a relic of the Obama years, but I can’t let myself think that. I’m wound up pretty tightly at the moment, but I do think that there are reasons to hope. I always tell my studies in my American Lit classes that America is an idea. As one obscure Irish poet put it, it’s possibly the best idea the world ever had, but it has never been properly realized. The power of that idea, however, is what fuels Hamilton, what made The West Wing a hit TV show, and why Leslie Knope is an endearing character. The problem at the heart of Trumpism, as with all nativist populism, is that it has divorced the idea of America from its mythos. The America of MAGA is inert: an unchanging bundle of resentment stuck somewhere in an imaginary past. The idea of America, by contrast, is dynamic and hopeful; it is generous and open. It is also what Joe Biden has been articulating throughout his campaign. Precious cargo, indeed.

See everybody on the other side.

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Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

lovecraft country

As I started to say in my previous post, Lovecraft Country, among other things—perhaps above other things—isn’t just an extended engagement with the fraught legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but deploys that legacy as an extended metaphor for the even more fraught legacy of race in America. And though I refer here to the novel by Matt Ruff, the first episode of HBO’s adaptation, “Sundown,” is very much on the same page.

Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago; a veteran of the Korean War; a son whose relationship to his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) is fraught to the point of estrangement; and a lover of pulp science fiction and fantasy. The opening sequence of “Sundown” is at once a flashback to his time in Korea, and a dream  wrought by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp authors, starting with visceral black-and-white hand-to-hand combat with North Korean soldiers, and moving into a technicolour attack by flying saucers, alien tripods á là H.G. Welles, and Lovecraftian, batlike monsters. The Cthulhu-esque tentacular beast confronting Atticus is suddenly split down the middle in a spume of green slime by none other than Jackie Robinson.

And then Atticus wakes up, on a bus taking him north, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars resting on his chest.

Atticus—or “Tic,” as others call him—comprises the central conceit of Lovecraft Country: a young Black man who knows as well as anybody the brutal realities of Jim Crow America; who served as a combat soldier in Korea, but doesn’t accrue any respect or gratitude for that from whites; but who is an enthusiastic reader of pulp fiction, in spite of the fact that those stories not only have little to say about him, but what they do have to say is racist and demeaning. Even the older Black woman with whom he ends up walking down a country road after their bus blows out doesn’t have much use for his choice of reading—pointing out to him that John Carter, the hero of Burroughs’ Mars novels, was a Confederate officer, and thus doesn’t deserve Atticus’ sympathies. Later, after Atticus makes it home to Chicago, he tells his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) that his father Montrose had tried to cure him of his pulp addiction by making him memorize a certain piece of doggerel by H.P. Lovecraft. (I won’t cite the vile title of the poem or quote it—typing “Lovecraft on the creation” into Google will take you to it if you’re that curious—but the most euphemistic way to summarize it is to say it suggests the gods saw a gap in creation between man and beast, and filled that gap by creating Black people). When the woman he met on the bus points out that John Carter doesn’t get to be an “ex-Confederate,” because “he fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that,” Atticus replies that, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.08.26 PM

Coming as it does in the first minutes of the first episode, this assertion initially felt like a lame, mealy-mouthed defense, and Atticus doesn’t really speak the line with much conviction—it feels as though, more than anything, he’s trying to convince himself. “The flaws are still there,” the woman points out. “Yeah, they are,” Atticus concedes. On reflection, however—and on re-watching the episode—it strikes me that Atticus’ words, here at the outset, articulate a key theme of the series. For one thing, it becomes obvious that he’s talking as much about his father as about his beloved pulp stories—over the course of “Sundown,” we learn that his father Montrose is an abusive alcoholic who was himself abused by his father, but also that he loved Atticus deeply, even if he couldn’t express it—and that his loathing of Atticus’ pulp fiction addiction was of a piece with his rage at Atticus’ enlistment. Why give yourself over to these people who hate you? Why read fiction that extols whiteness and vilifies blackness? Why fight for a nation that makes you a second-class citizen?

While Atticus is an admirably nuanced and well-realized character in the novel—and Jonathan Majors’ performance so far promises to be extraordinary—he is also Lovecraft Country’s central conceit; that is to say, his love of fiction that doesn’t love him back, but which nevertheless resonates with him, is a poignant metaphor for the contradictions of the American Experiment. “In the beginning was not only the word,” wrote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, “but its contradiction.” That contradiction is baked into the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner. Black scholars and thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Ellison to Toni Morrison, have long pointed out this contradiction between the promise of America and its practice, and demanded that the promise be fulfilled.

[It was at this moment in the drafting of this post that I abandoned the laptop and worked longhand, as I usually do when trying to work through ideas that aren’t easily gelling; I filled a few pages of a legal pad with several attempts to speak to the larger issues concerning race that have been brought to the fore in the past few months, and how Lovecraft Country bears on them. I have chosen discretion over valour, however, because (1) I want to get this post done in a relatively timely manner, and am loath to articulate thoughts on such topics not fully baked; and (2) I don’t want this post to be Tolstoy-length. Suffice to say, TL;DR: the timing of Lovecraft Country airing now is serendipitous, not least because we just saw the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the VP candidate.]

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Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta and Courtney B. Vance as George Freeman.

“Sundown” does an admirable job of establishing the world of the story and introducing its main characters: in addition to Atticus as his uncle George, there’s George’s wife Hippolyta, and their daughter Diana, who has her own genre obsession—she draws comics featuring heroic characters. George and Hippolyta publish The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists towns, restaurants, and hotels that are Black-friendly. And if that publication sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s based on the historical Green Book, which, as it happens, had its own movie not long ago. Writing for NPR, Glen Weldon lists the similarities and differences between the movie and the series:

Here is a list of things that the HBO series Lovecraft Country, premiering Sunday, August 16th, has in common with the 2018 film Green Book:

  1. Setting: Jim Crow-era America
  2. Acting: Subtle, nuanced performances (Viggo Mortensen’s dese-and-dose Green Book gangster notwithstanding).
  3. Subject: Story features a road trip involving a travel guidebook written to inform Black people where they can safely eat and stay. (Green Book: Entire film; Lovecraft Country: Opening episodes only.)

And here is a brief, incomplete list of the things that Lovecraft Country prominently features that Green Book emphatically does not:

1. A story centered on the lives of Black characters.
2. Black characters with agency, absent any White Savior narrative.
3. Shoggoths.

The second list is key: though Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country, is white, he scrupulously avoids injecting white characters into the story to act as saviours. Indeed, Atticus’ name is a wry nod to the longtime liberal custom of telling nominally anti-racist stories in which victimized Black characters are saved through the intervention of a virtuous white protagonist—the veritable archetype for this character being Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, immortalized in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film adaptation. Green Book was only one of the most recent examples of this tendency, mercifully eschewed by Lovecraft Country.

But to get back to the characters: we also meet Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), who ends up hitting the road with Atticus and George as they go looking for Atticus’ missing father. And we also briefly encounter Letitia’s older sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who doesn’t figure much into this episode, but, assuming the series remains faithful to the novel, will have a more significant role later.

We do not, unfortunately, meet Atticus’ father Montrose, but I’m fairly sure he’ll show up in episode two (Omar comin’!).

At issue in this episode, and in the series more generally, is Atticus’ genealogy: he has returned home from Florida, where he’s been living since his discharge from the army, because of a letter from his father. Montrose wrote to say he’d discovered something about Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry, which was somehow related to a Massachusetts town called Ardham. Atticus, with understandable perplexity, initially reads as “Arkham” until George corrects him. One way or another, however, as Atticus observes, their search is going to take them deep into “Lovecraft country”—both literally, in terms of the New England countryside in which Lovecraft set much of his fiction; and figuratively, insofar as they encounter the virulent, violent racism of a sheriff who informs them that Devon County—in which Ardham is supposedly located—is a “sundown country,” meaning that unless they can remove themselves beyond its borders by sundown, the sheriff will hang them.

Sundown towns were distressingly common, and were actually quite prevalent throughout the northern states. The consequences might not be as extreme as lynching—though that was not unheard of—but would certainly be violent. Hence the need for a motorists’ guide that would inform Black travelers about which such towns to avoid (one criticism leveled at Green Book is that it elides the fact that the north was actually worse for sundown towns, and that New Jersey—tacitly depicted in the film as friendly territory—was particularly inhospitable, and that Viggo Mortensen’s character, the driver hired to chauffeur Mahershala Ali for his concert tour, only starts to consult the titular green book once they enter the south).

Sundown thus obtains a dual sense of dread—the real-world, historical threat it posed Blacks in such locales, as well as the horror-story fear of the dark that comes with night. For it is when Atticus, Letitia, and George have made their way into Devon County that these two threats intersect. While stopped in the middle of a forest as they vainly search for a road that will take them to Ardham, they find themselves confronted by Sheriff Eustace Hunt, who informs them of Devon County’s unwritten sundown law. Though they manage to cross the county line with seconds to spare, they are then stopped by more police. Sheriff Eustace, it seemed, called ahead. They are taken into the forest, forced to lie prone on their bellies, and accused of a string of burglaries while the cops hold shotguns to their heads. And then …

Well, then is when “Lovecraft country” becomes actually Lovecraftian, as they are all attacked by the aforementioned Shoggoths. Shoggoths, for those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fiction, are monstrous, amoebic blobs, dotted with many eyes. Or, as described in At the Mountains of Madness:

It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

The shoggoths of Lovecraft Country aren’t quite so blob-like as they are huge, hound-like beasts with round mouths forested with teeth, and quivering slimy skin with the consistency and complexion of dead fish. They do, however, have many eyes.

shoggoth

True to its pulp roots, Lovecraft Country doesn’t aim for subtlety in its metaphors—though to be fair, neither does much of the horror genre. Monsters are always representations of the most prevalent fears and anxieties in the cultural imaginary at a given moment. And people are often the worst monsters, even when there are actual monsters present to offer comparison. Lovecraft Country is about the monstrosity of racism, so when Sheriff Eustace, having been bitten by a Shoggoth, starts to transform into one, the point hits home quite plainly.

The presence of Shoggoths—or, perhaps more accurately, the suggested analogy between their beasts and the malevolent blobs of Lovecraft’s imagining—might also be read as a subtle dig at Lovecraft. In At the Mountains of Madness, the Miskatonic University exploratory team of scientists finds in Antarctica an ancient city of “cyclopean” proportions (one of Lovecraft’s favourite adjectives, meaning enormous). The city had been built by the Old Ones, ancient god-like alien creatures (like Cthulhu) who predated human existence on Earth. The shoggoths were created as a slave race to serve them, but ultimately rose up against their masters and destroyed them. Though the series is mostly faithful to the novel, some of the names have been changed: Atticus’ surname in the series is Freeman (with all of the significance that obtains), but in the novel it’s Turner—an allusion to Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Also, when looking for news of his father, Atticus goes to the bar that was his habitual haunt—which is named Denmark Vesey’s Bar. Denmark Vesey was a free Black man who was executed in 1822 on the charge of planning a slave rebellion.

It takes “Sundown” some time before the supernatural elements intrude—we’re four-fifths of the way in when the Shoggoths appear—but the narrative and thematic build makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the most poignant sequence is a montage of our three heroes driving from the Midwest to Massachusetts—a montage scored not to music, but by a speech delivered by writer James Baldwin in 1965 at Cambridge University. The speech was Baldwin’s rebuttal to William F. Buckley in a debate over the proposition “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” It is worth watching in its entirety, or else reading the transcript.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baldwin won the debate resoundingly.

As we hear Baldwin’s eloquent and mellifluous words, we see images of Atticus, Letitia, and George at various points in their road trip, and we see images of a segregated America. At key moments, the mise-en-scène precisely echoes photographs by Gordon Parks, a Black photographer who, among other subjects, chronicled segregation in Jim Crow America.

gordon parks

On the left: Gordon Parks’ photography. On the right: stills from Lovecraft Country.

One of the most infuriating moments comes when, as they’re paused at a gas station, a skinny white boy mocks Atticus—who is eating a banana—by making monkey noises. Atticus looks threatening for a moment, but Letitia holds him back. Atticus settles for throwing the banana peel in the asshole’s face, which only evokes more laughter from him and his friends—secure in their societally sanctioned safety, in spite of the fact that the impressively muscled, combat veteran Atticus could likely snap the boy in two with no great effort.

As they pull away from the station, we see a billboard advertising Aunt Jemima across the street.

aunt jemima

I think I’ll end this post here, not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because I could go on and on. The ending of the episode sets us up for the next one, so I’ll talk about that some time next week.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.

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Some preliminary thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft before I post about Lovecraft Country

lovecraft countryI’ve taught the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft twice now: first in a second-year introduction to science fiction and fantasy, in which I paired up “classic” texts with more contemporary ones (Lovecraft I counterpoised with short fiction by China Miéville), and more extensively in a fourth-year seminar I called “The American Weird.” In the latter, we spent three weeks of a twelve-week semester looking specifically at Lovecraft’s short fiction, as well as his novella At the Mountains of Madness. And then we looked at authors who have been influenced by Lovecraft (Stephen King, for example), or who more specifically engage critically with Lovecraft’s tropes, preoccupations, and, importantly, his racism. One of the latter texts was a novella by Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom, which is a retelling of Lovecraft’s hella racist story (even for him) “The Horror at Red Hook,” from the perspective of a Black protagonist.

One of the other texts in the latter category was Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country.

Lovecraft Country NovelLovecraft Country was easily a class favourite—which was something of a relief, as it was easily my favourite, and indeed one of the reasons I’d conceived of the course in the first place. So when HBO announced that Jordan Peele would be producing a series based on the novel, I was about as excited as I’d been ten years ago about Game of Thrones. The fact that one of the main characters was slated to be played by Michael K. Williams, aka Omar from The Wire, was just icing on the cake.

And after what seemed an interminable interlude, the series premiered this week.

I’m mulling whether I want to do episode-by-episode posts, á là my GoT posts with Nikki (except sans Nikki, unless she wants in). This may or may not happen. But I cannot let the first episode go by without airing my thoughts.

However … I won’t be talking about the first episode in this post. I’d originally thought I should have a brief little primer on H.P. Lovecraft, so as to better get into what Lovecraft Country is doing.

But, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t do brief. And so I’ll be doing a second post in a day or two on the episode—this one is a more in-depth discussion of Lovecraft than I’d intended.

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Lovecraft, it needs to be said, is something of an odd literary figure, insofar as he was an objectively terrible writer, both in terms of his prose and his storytelling, who ended up exerting an outsized influence on horror and its overlapping genres of science fiction and fantasy. When I said as much in my SF/F survey class, one student protested, saying he didn’t think there was anything particularly bad about Lovecraft’s prose. “Well, try this,” I suggested. “When you go home, read some of his sentences out loud, and we’ll revisit this next class.” Sure enough, next class the student sheepishly admitted that , when reading Lovecraft’s sentences aloud, he could not get past how wordy and awkward and clunky so many of them are.

Lugubrious is the word I would use, and pretentious in the manner of someone who wants to demonstrate a large vocabulary without really knowing how. Take, for example, the opening sentence of At the Mountains of Madness: “I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.” While not one of his more egregious constructions—I’ll get to one of those in a moment—it is typical of Lovecraft’s typically forced cadences. “I am forced into speech” is precisely the kind of phrasing that earns my students an “awk.” in the margins, indicating that, while not technically incorrect grammatically, is still quite awkward and should be rethought. “Regrettably, circumstances compel me to speak, “ or “I must, reluctantly, speak up,” would be improvements, but not great ones; better to start with the reason why the narrator is “forced,” with something like, “The refusal of my fellow scientists to listen to me has left my no choice but to speak up.” Again, not elegant, but clearer: “men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why” is a little confusing, as the “why” is too vague—and also, how often are we likely to follow someone’s advice when we don’t know why we should?

Perhaps this seems nitpicky, and it is, but such phrasing and sentence structure is pervasive throughout Lovecraft’s corpus. The opening sentence of Mountains is more or less inoffensive, but then the second paragraph gives us this behemoth:

In the end I rely on the judgment and standing of the few scientific leaders who have, on the one hand, insufficient independence of thought to weigh my data on its own hideously convincing merits or in the light of certain primordial and highly baffling myth-cycles, and on the other hand, sufficient influence to deter the exploring world in general from my rash and overambitious programme in the region of those mountains of madness.

Woof. I won’t parse all that—that would take too long, and I have other old gods to fry—but perhaps you get a sense of Lovecraft’s prose, and why readers with a low threshold for bad writing wouldn’t get more than a few sentences into his fiction before tossing it aside and writing Lovecraft off as merely a “pulp” writer.

Well, to be fair, he was a pulp writer, one of the many whose often lurid stories were published in cheap paperbacks and magazines; but out of that milieu came a handful of authors who gave us some persistent and enduring—albeit deeply problematic—characters and stories. Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian, and with him a strain of proto-fantasy that resisted gentrification by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Edgar Rice Burroughs—whom Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is reading at the start of Lovecraft Country—wrote all the John Carter of Mars novels, as well as numerous other SF works, but also created Tarzan. And though he was not in quite the same milieu, Englishman H. Rider Haggard invented the archaeological adventure story with novels like King Solomon’s Mines and She, without which we would not have Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider.

And then there’s Lovecraft, who despite his poor writing and shaky storytelling, profoundly influenced a generation of horror novelists and filmmakers. Unlike Howard and Burroughs, he did not have any memorable characters (unless you count the old god Cthulhu, but more on that below). What is so compelling about Lovecraft? His “mythos”—which imagined a malevolent universe populated by old gods and monsters that exist beyond the capacity of science and reason to comprehend them; much of his fiction is preoccupied with what happens when we mere mortals accidentally stumble into their ken. Spoiler alert: it never goes well for we mortals, who, if we’re lucky, are merely killed; the unlucky go mad, and the unluckiest somehow keep our minds but live with the crushing existential dread of knowing a cosmic truth that haunts us. Or as Lovecraft puts it at the start of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

The “Cthulhu” in question is the old god that became central to Lovecraft’s mythos, to the point that it is now called the “Cthulhu Mythos.” It is a hideous, enormous tentacular horror that stalked the earth in its pre-pre-prehistorical days, but now lies slumbering beneath the earth. Its dreams infect the sensitive and give them visions of madness, or on occasion drive them actually mad. And, as chronicled in the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” sometimes tectonic events will drive his lair above the sea’s surface—at which point, eldritch hijinks ensue.

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(If you want a rather hilarious rundown of Cthulhu &co.’s origin story, read Neil Gaiman’s “I, Cthulhu,” in which the old god in question recounts his tale in a fireside chat).

Lovecraft, a native New Englander, was deeply influenced by his home’s geography and its history. The vast majority of his fiction is based in, or connected to, a constellation of fictional small towns in Massachusetts—the principal one being Arkham, which houses Miskatonic University, with which many of his protagonists are affiliated. Beyond providing its geography, Lovecraft’s mythos is rooted in the region’s theocratic history: as has been discussed by a significant number of scholars, Lovecraft’s fiction is deeply influenced by the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of New England’s Puritan settlers, in which humans are characterized as pitiful insects before God, whose only worth is to grovel before his greatness in the vain hope that he might grant salvation. The Cthulhu Mythos articulates this sort of Puritan self-abnegation, but without the hope of salvation—Lovecraft was a militant atheist, and took from the Puritan legacy mortals’ meaninglessness, without the hope.

Those unfamiliar with Lovecraft but steeped in the DC comics universe (though honestly I can’t imagine there are many of you in that particular Venn diagram) probably heard a bell go off at the name “Arkham.” Because, yes—the notorious Arkham Asylum of Batman and other Gotham-related tales is an overt reference to Lovecraft. The giant squid Ozymandias uses to destroy New York at the end of Watchmen is a nod to Cthulhu. The shape-shifting alien of The Thing is totally Lovecraftian. The xenomorph of the Alien franchise owes its existence to Lovecraft’s legacy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more indebted to Lovecraft than to Bram Stoker–its spinoff Angel perhaps even more so. As does, as I have written at some length, The Cabin in the Woods. And, well, I wouldn’t necessarily say Stephen King wouldn’t have a career without Lovecraft—but it would have been a very different career. To take just one example, It is probably the most Lovecraftian story there has been outside Lovecraft himself.

I could go on, but you probably get the point. Nobody will ever laud Lovecraft for his art, which is fair, but like a handful of his pulp compatriots, he has created compelling tropes that have lodged themselves in our collective imagination. But also like those of Burroughs and Howard and Haggard, they are deeply problematic. Conan the Barbarian is a veritable distillation of masculine characteristics that in the present moment we call toxic; H. Rider Haggard both traded on and furthered colonialist, racist representations of Africa and Africans as barbaric and hypersexualized; Burroughs did the same with Tarzan. In an early scene of “Sundown,” the first episode of Lovecraft Country, Atticus walks down a country road with an older Black woman after their bus had suffered a breakdown, and they were refused a ride in the pickup truck that came for them. When she asks him about the book he’s been reading, Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, Atticus describes the travails of its hero John Carter. “Wait,” she interrupts him. “He’s a Confederate officer?” “Ex-confederate,” Atticus corrects her, but she’s having none of it. “He fought for slavery,” she says. “You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that.”

It’s a brief exchange, but a sharp one, and part of the point of Lovecraft Country is to interrogate Lovecraft’s legacy and influence—for, as I mentioned at the start of this post, Lovecraft was a virulent racist, and that racism informed his writing. China Miéville puts it quite well in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of At the Mountains of Madness:

Lovecraft was notoriously not only an elitist and a reactionary, but a bilious and lifelong racist. His idiot and disgraceful pronouncements on racial themes range from pompous pseudoscience—“The Negro is fundamentally the biologically inferior of all White and even Mongolian races”—to monstrous endorsements—“[Hitler’s] vision is … romantic and immature … yet that cannot blind us to the honest rightness of the man’s basic urge … I know he’s a clown, but by God, I like the boy!” This was written before the Holocaust, but Hitler’s attitudes were no secret, and the terrible threat he represented was stressed by many. (Lovecraft’s letter was written some months after Hitler had become chancellor). So while Lovecraft is here not overtly supporting genocide, he is hardly off the hook.

As Miéville notes, one of the common defenses offered of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism is that, well, that was what things were like at that time. As one of my students said, “It was the 1920s and 30s. Everyone was racist then.” To which I responded, well, no. There were actively antiracist white people then, and there were racists, but then there were also RACISTS—the lower-case group being people who did not question the overt societal ethos of white supremacy, and thought that Hitler fellow perfectly dreadful, but did not otherwise give it much thought; and then the latter, which were the Lovecrafts of the world—people actively and vocally championing white supremacy and superiority, opining at length on the inferiority of darker-skinned peoples, who saw in Hitler a brave and honest truth-teller, and who—like Lovecraft—endorsed eugenics and phrenology. So, no … Lovecraft was not merely “of his time” where his racial animus was concerned; he was in the vanguard.

(That being said, I get a bit squirrelly in making this distinction, because part of the cognitive dissonance of our present moment has proceeded from the tacit assumption that only all-caps racism is truly pernicious, or for that matter is the only real racism—that if you’re not hurling the N-word at Black people, or burning crosses, or otherwise behaving like every southern sheriff in every Hollywood movie about racism, then the charge is unfair. And when we’ve come to associate the terms “racism” and “racist” with those extreme behaviours, it makes it difficult for white people to make an honest reckoning with systemic racism and our complicity in it).

Lovecraft is thus an interesting figure to consider in our present moment of racial and historical reckoning, when such literal edifices as statues and monuments memorializing figures and events associated with slavery and institutional racism are being brought down. It’s easy enough to endorse the removal of Confederate monuments; it gets more complicated when the legacies and histories of the people memorialized are themselves more complicated. Does the authoring of the Declaration of Independence give slave-owning Thomas Jefferson a pass? Does Winston Churchill’s leadership during WWII outweigh his lethal policies in India?

Lovecraft had his own moment of statuary removal several years ago. Since 1975, the World Fantasy Award—along with such SF/F awards as the Hugo and Nebula— has been one of the most prestigious honours in the world of genre fiction. The very first awards were bestowed at the World Fantasy Convention, held in 1975 in HP Lovecraft’s home city of Providence, Rhode Island. In Lovecraft’s honour, the statuette was a stylized, elongated bust of his face—and so it remained for the next four decades.

As SF/F has become less and less the near-exclusive territory of white male authors, and grown to include more diverse writership and readership, the predictable backlashes have occurred—not least of which being the campaign by the so-called “Sad Puppies,” who were up in arms that the Hugo Awards were too woke and were eschewing “real” SF/F in favour of novels and stories written by social justice warriors. (If you want to read my rant about it at the time, click here). This was also the time of Gamergate, and—well, I don’t want to rehash that bit of asshattery, so of you’re unfamiliar, Google it. In this same time frame, there was a lot of pressure to retire the Lovecraft statuette. Authors of colour who had been awarded the “Howard,” as it is called (H.P. stands for Howard Philips) pointed out what a tainted honour it was to be lauded for their work with the visage of a man who considered them less than human.

And so the Howard was retired, and a new trophy was created, with all of the predictable hue and cry from those who, anticipating the protests about Confederate statues, called the retirement of the Howard an erasure of history—and an erasure of Lovecraft’s work.

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Myself, I prefer the new trophy, and I reject the suggestion that the change is an erasure of any kind. It strikes me that what gets lost in the polarized debate about monuments and legacies and who we should memorialize is the overwhelming value of the debate itself. At the end of the day, whether or not the statue comes down, or whether or not a literary trophy gets a makeover, is at least a little bit beside the point: what I find encouraging in these moments is that arguments that have largely been had on the fringes have become more central. Do I think statues of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill should be torn down? Actually, no—I do not. But I do think their histories and legacies need closer interrogation, and the tacit hagiography that attaches to them needs dispelling.

The same goes for those authors whose works resonate still today. Those influences are still powerful. But how we choose to be influenced, or how we critically approach the nature of that influence, is something else entirely. I’m seeing a lot of that in my current research with how fantasy as a genre is transforming what was, in its origins, a deeply conservative, reactionary, and religious sensibility, into a far more secular, humanist, and progressive one.

Not least of which are novels like Lovecraft Country, and its current adaptation on HBO.

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