An Unexpected Journey – Re-Reading The Hobbit Chapter 1

After a 2020-apocalypse-driven hiatus, I’m diving back into reading with a Tolkien re-read. I hope you’ll join me on my adventure!

I haven’t read The Hobbit in nearly a decade. I’m sure the events of chapter one amused me when I was younger. But as my 34th birthday has passed me by a couple weeks ago, this time I was struck with feelings of ire on behalf of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Here’s this polite, friendly guy, greeting a stranger with a hearty “good morning” and from that small interaction Bilbo gets stuck with a houseful of uninvited guests demanding seedcakes and telling him how they like their breakfast done in the morning.

At least most of the dwarves are a friendly, affable sort. But Thorin Oakenshield … well I wouldn’t him as my employer. Someone who’s too good to help clear the dishes? No thanks. Tolkien does an amazing job of painting a picture of someone who is puffed up with his own importance, while also indicating that the pride isn’t deserved. (Reminds me of the Tory party…..) Just look at his lineage. Grandfather Thrór is ran out of the North for reasons unknown. Luckily he stumbles across a huge pile of gold in his new mountain and declares himself King under the Mountain. In the South. (Nevermind the dwarves in the North.)

All that gold attracts a dragon, of course. Damn those greedy dragons. Which means Thorin is forced to flee with Grandpop and Dad and a handful of unnamed dwarves. (He doesn’t mention his dear mum. Guess dwarves are born from the ground or something.) The mighty king and heirs are forced to (make their people) work for a living. The horror! Instead of doing fancy smithing work for kings, the dwarves have to resort to the lowly job of blacksmithing and working mines. Thorin’s pride obviously takes a huge hit that his people have to do something so base. (Can you all see me rolling my eyes?)

I’m not sure how I would react if this guy showed up on my doorstep, judging my character while ordering his breakfast. To Bilbo’s credit he handles it with – not exactly grace – but with extremely good manners, going so far as to sacrifice his share of the cakes in order to be a good host.

Of course, it must have been the Baggins part of his nature that has instilled all that politeness and respectability as Tolkien goes on for a lengthy paragraph to state that the adventure-spirit comes from his mother’s side. And not just from his mother, the (im)famous Belladonna Took, but potentially there’s a fairy wife in the Took ancestry too. So the mother’s line damns him twice over. (Un)Luckily for Belladonna, she loses both identity and character when she becomes Mrs. Bungo Baggins. She stops going on adventures, gains respectability through her new name, and her husband builds her a beautiful and luxurious home – with her money. And really, what more could a woman ask for?

Bradbury’s Prophecy

Earlier this year I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) with a sense of quiet unease. The book, if you haven’t read it (and you really should!) depicts a life where books are banned. While there are pockets of people who keep a library, their neighbours are quick to report on them and a fireman’s job in this dystopia is to burn the stash.

When reading it, I couldn’t help but see comparisons with our own conservative government and those who reign globally. I’m sure it’s hardly a surprise that I vote left. In Canada, provincial power governs such things as health care and education, and so they have a lot of power when elected. And despite the signed declaration that, if elected, the conservatives would not dismantle health care, it came as no surprise that less than a year after taking power they cut funding to both health care and education. The party and the premiere have openly stated that universities are “outdated” models, and that they want to return the education system back to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their education mandate is to remove all “liberal-agenda” from the curriculum. And by “liberal,” they mean the capacity to reason and question; critical analysis, scientific reasoning, sociopolitical consciousness = these are all seen as “liberal agendas.” Or, to state it simply, we have a government that actively refutes climate change and LTBQ+ rights. They have spread a propaganda campaign where public sector workers (health care providers and education workers) are greedily stealing money from the “real” hard-working Albertans. Or, in other words, we have a legally elected fascist government who is acting to further dumb down the population. And I’m sure that statement is true of a lot of states and nations.

So, of course, I couldn’t help seeing specters in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But, it was an image that I scoffed at. It was the start of 2020, and the future seemed bright. I was uneasy with the state of the world, but blindly optimistic that things don’t happen like they do in a book.

And then the pandemic hit.

And we’ve seen governments not only struggle to cope (justifiably so), we’ve also seen leaders who have outright denied there’s a problem, or acknowledge the problem but then staunchly ignore the advice of medical professionals (and science in general). But while it’s easy to blame this incredible mismanagement on incompetent leaders, it’s important to remember that we, the public, put them there.

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its accord.”

Bradbury, p. 87

Re-reading that phrase now, I feel nauseated.

Could this pandemic have been avoided? Doubtful. Given the ease of international travel, a sickness of some sort was bound to spread sooner or later. Could things have been handled better? To give the benefit of the doubt, no one was prepared for the scale of this event.

But. Do we live in a world where – even today – people are doing all that they can to take the pandemic seriously? We have anti-vaxxers and science-deniers who are insistent that this is a government conspiracy to enforce vaccination – or that the pandemic was caused by science and medicine in the first place. We have news outlets who give equal voice to the opinions of Karen on the street as they do to the expert in the field. There are those who gather(ed) in large groups despite all warnings not to do so. We have governments who toed the line with declaring an emergency for fear of harming the economy. And those who use the pandemic to continue pushing through their own right-wing agendas.

In Alberta: contracts with doctors and other medical professionals were ripped up and then “put on hold until the pandemic is over” (read: made redundant after this emergency is all over); just this weekend the party suspended environmental reporting (reporting of contaminants in air, land, and water) for reasons that I don’t quite understand but are somehow pandemic related; 25,000 education workers were laid off just days before the premiere found $7.5 billion in the budget to fund the oil pipeline; university funding was cut despite the fact that this also includes cuts to a team who are right now working on a cure.

Public health continues to come last, despite all that is occurring. But more aggravating, disheartening, and, indeed, terrifying, is seeing corrupt officials using a global pandemic to continue dismantling public services.

And, I am absolutely confident that, despite everything, the voting public will continue to put these parties in power.

Given the year+ prediction for when a vaccine may be found (if at all; after all, the common cold still doesn’t have a cure), it is likely that societal structures may dramatically shift. But, will we see the end of late capitalism, into a more socialist, utopian reality? Or will we be like Bradbury’s bibliophiles: hiding, on the run, condemned for being different from the rest of society because of our love of questioning; reasoning; critically analyzing?

There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly thing we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation.

Bradbury, p. 163

That’s Bradbury’s way of saying “history repeats itself.” But, while Bradbury aims on a (tongue-in-cheek?) optimistic note, right now I’m feeling less confident of the resilience of humanity.

Quarantine Questionnaire

Since everyone on facebook seem to be positing a “get to know me” style questionnaire. I decided to make up my own. 12 questions for now, but thinking of more. (And the answers too of course.)

Feel free to copy and share.

  • 1. Would you prefer a weekend on a spaceship or elf realm?
  • 2. You’re on a deserted island with a wizard/magic- type. Which wizard?
  • 3. You can only choose 1 book to bring on that island. Which book?
  • 4. You can pick one superhero to save the world TODAY. Who do you pick?
  • 5. Dream dinner party. Who are your 5 Fantastika guests (fictional or real)?
  • 6. What fictional food would you love to try/serve at that party?
  • 7. You get a week’s vacation to any Fantastika location. Where do you go?
  • 8. You find a cabin in the woods to self-isolate from the pandemic. Unfortunately it gets attached by the Fantastika creature you fear the most. What is that creature?
  • 9. Which Fantastika weapon do you choose to defend yourself? (General or specific)
  • 10. You find an object that transports you to a Fantastika world, but one you would HATE to end up. Where are you?
  • 11. Which Fantastika locale would you retire in?
  • 12. Which Fantastika person (real or fictional) would you pick to be your closest neighbour?

The DNF Pile: When Sirens Fail to Lure You to Adventure

Well, we’re only 2 months into the new decade and I’ve already abandoned 3 books from my “to-be-read shelves”. I don’t know about you, but I always kept my Did-Not-Finish piles in the “one day I’ll read this” fantasy dream. But, now that I have a tiny human to take care of alongside the daily realities of work and independent research (i.e with little to no leisure time), I feel the world’s too short to have a to pile of books looming over me, judging and shaming my failure as a reader.

Interestingly, I actually LOVED one of the books that I gave up on. So, being an academic and critic, I couldn’t simply accept the idea that I didn’t like something. I had to dwell deeper. Into the why. and the what. and the how.

The first book, Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World (2004), has a typical Call to Adventure (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces) that seems to promise some blood and mayhem at least. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it that far. The main character is introduced as “Smith,” an anonymous, generic name that matches the make-up of the character. That is, he doesn’t seem to have a character. In the early pages, he serves as a vehicle to carry the story, and reacts to rather than drives the narrative. His personality, former profession, associates, etc, is all tied up in this anonymity so that we know nothing about him. Now for some, this question might be enough to spur them to continue reading (See my discussion of Jess Smith’s Bone for a quick crasher on how micro and macro questions makes for a page turner). However, the summary on the book jacket threw in another complication: the story is described as the tale of Smith, and “the large extended family of Smith”; but it becomes clear very early on that these characters are not related in anyway, and that “Smith” is just a generic title that they have adopted in order to hide in anonymity. It’s unclear whether the copy on the book jacket was just sloppy editing or whether it was deliberately written to hide a double-meaning in the words; either way, the muddled synopsis left a bad taste in my mouth.

Character and narrative voice are key in inviting a reader to continue on with the story. You can have an exciting action-packed opening scene, but if you don’t connect with the voice from the start, then reading becomes a chore. K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter (2017) is another novel I added to my DNF stack due to my lack of engagement with the character/narrator’s voice. The story is conveyed as an embedded frame narrative through a series of letters between the two main characters. As a result, the main narrative is told in second person throughout. Second person voice is a hard sell. It CAN be done effectively (i.e. see N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, 2015-2017; for fear of spoilers, I won’t go into details of why the second person viewpoint served a dramatic purpose in all three novels, but let me just say that utilizing the second person voice to serve a purpose was sheer brilliance on Jemisin’s part). Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case for Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. The story (at least in the first few chapters that I read) is simply told as character 1 relaying the events of their past to character 2 in a “remember when we did x? I’m going to tell you the story of it anyway in this long letter because I love the story so much.” This style of writing seems forced, as if the author wanted to use the letter-style of writing but couldn’t figure out a way to justify its use. Consequently, the letter-writing simply serves as a vehicle to tell the story, instead of using it as a medium to further explore nuances of theme and voice. It would have made more sense if the letter-writer had revealed some unknown fact or perspective that the letter-reader was previously unaware of; or it would have been more interesting if the letter-reader had reacted to the perspective of the letter-writer in some way, perhaps with their own interpretation of events, or an emotion of guilt, or nostalgia, or something. But this didn’t appear to be the case, and I sadly added it to my DNF pile. It was a shame, because I had such hopes for the story (the narrative concerns the romantic relationship between two strong, competent women, both daughters of equally strong, competent women). But as I kept waiting for the “main story” to start, and only realized (after a quick Goodreads search) that the letters was the main narrative, I couldn’t bring myself to continue.

On the surface, The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2018) bear some relation to The Anvil of the World and The Tiger’s Daughter. Like The Anvil of the World, The Tangled Lands is novella collection. But, like both Baker’s and Aresnault Rivera’s narratives, this structure is not made clear on the book jacket synopsis. (In fact, The Anvil of the World is advertised as Baker’s first Fantasy novel, which is clearly incorrect.) Now, while I have nothing against novella collections, I would like to be made aware of the structure before I’m a quarter of the way into the book. Knowing the structure and medium of a text is important. It allows the reader to anticipate the peaks and valleys. Hit a peak or valley too soon or too late, and it puts the reader on the wrong footing. What do I mean by this? As I was unaware that the book was a novella collection, as I started reading the first “part,” I immediately felt that the pacing was too fast. It was building too quickly towards a climax, with the stakes being high very early on. Had I been aware that the narrative was a short-story, I would have approached it differently. I would have been prepared for the sprint, rather than settling in for a long, slow journey.

But more frustrating is that I became too emotionally invested in the characters. I had geared myself up to join them on an epic adventure, and befriended them early as a result. I worried for them and feared for them, in a way that I didn’t with my first two DNFs. Bacigalupi (who writes the first story in the collection) does an incredible job of creating characters with depths and high stakes with just a few brush strokes. The main character is presented to us with a history, one who has fallen and suffered great lost. It’s easy to feel worry for him and his young daughter as they dabble in things that are too dangerous for a simple craftsman. And so it was that when I got to the end of the first short story, I felt disappointment, as if I’ve been cheated. I wanted to know what happened to them, and wanted to continue joining my new friends on their dangerous adventure. Unlike the first two books, where I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to continue reading their stories, here I felt like I had lost new friends that I had only begun to discover. And so I may yet return to The Tangled Lands to read again. But only after my grief has time to mellow and heal.

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-2019). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

The Problem of Placing the “Original” Draft onto a Pedestal

Every once in awhile I see a tweet or post pop up on my dashboard about how J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by nearly every major publisher. The message of the post always seems aimed at the foolishness of the industry, and how they missed out on publishing a successful author. To a struggling author, this message might give them hope, a “don’t stop trying” attitude. But, as an editor and author (albeit in the academic world), I can’t help but wonder whether her published work (or proposal letter) bears any relation to her original submission. In a society that values hard work, we also seem keen to hide the number of edits and revisions any art must go through before it reaches publication potential – or before it can even be deemed to be worthy of consideration.

In recent days, I’ve seen discussion of the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker‘s so-called “original script” floating around on the internet. If this gives people some sense of reassurance that the studio hasn’t killed their childhood, then so be it. (I’ve already discussed in my last 3 posts why I think the movie was awesome, so I won’t get into it here.) But the point I want to draw attention to is the idea that the “original” script is authentic. For people who are extremely unhappy with the final product, they can hold on to this notion of the original script because it’s supposedly what the writers or director “really” wanted. This idea seems to leave out all the hard work of editing, and that, in fact, the final product is what the artist had aimed for all along. True, the artist might not be happy with the result themselves, but the first draft is like a hunk of unrefined clay, waiting to be moulded into something better.

The editing process is long and arduous, and anyone that dismisses it as an afterthought seems to lack a basic understanding of how publication and production works. This last December, 8 years after I formed the initial concept I finally published my article on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle that I had sitting in my draft folder. In that time I obtained an MA, a PhD, got married, and had a kid. Nearly every year I sat down to re-draft the article all over again, completely revising the focus and perimeters of the paper. I can’t count the number of different forms its gone through – or the number of times it’s been peer reviewed. (In complete honesty, I used one of the earlier drafts to interview potential editors for Fantastika Journal. So if you’ve interviewed with me for the journal, yup, that was my rough work.)

The major problem with this draft (in my opinion anyway) was that there was two disjointed halves, a part A and a part B. This two part structure developed as a result of trying to expand a conference piece into a publishable item. While very few people picked up on the two disparate structure, many of the reviewers pinpointed that the article didn’t follow the argument I had proposed in my introduction.

I use this example, because it’s one that I see over and over again as a journal editor: conference papers that have been redrafted for article submission rarely fit the argument outlined in the introduction (or indeed, in the conference abstract), as, through the course of writing and research, the central argument will shift from the initial proposal. And really, if your article doesn’t change in the slightest after you’ve done all of your reading and research, then I’d question your research process. If you didn’t learn and adjust your ideas in the course of research, then I’m not sure what you might’ve gained from your reading.

To return to Rowling, based on the original synopsis, as an editor I would’ve rejected the work too! I’m not sure if the synopsis was a part of her elevator pitch (the “would you be interested in this sort of work” email), or part of a book proposal which was invited by a publisher who accepted the elevator pitch. But in any case, the first two paragraphs of the synopsis reads:

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash — or so he has been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).

The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard, and the letter he gives Harry explains that he is expected at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a month’s time.

It takes two paragraphs to get to the fact that Harry is a wizard; an idea that is absolutely crucial to the plot of the first novel and the series itself. Yes, while Harry being a wizard isn’t revealed to Harry in the first part of the book, the audience knows it from the start, and once Harry discovers his identity, the rest of the plot doesn’t focus too much on this identity crisis. But, from the way this synopsis reads, it would appear that the book focuses on this hidden identity. His identity as wizard is discussed in a mysterious way (“odd things”; “truth about himself”). The reveal itself is delivered in a bland, boring way, “Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard.” And, to be honest, the whole language reads, kinda… dull. You can read the full synopsis here and judge for yourself. In fairness to Rowling, the synopsis is much longer than the brief introduction I’ve presented here, and she does go into the actual plot in more detail as she continues. BUT, publishers receives thousands of book proposals. You NEED to be able to sell them on the idea in the first few sentences. If you can’t entice the publisher to read past the first statement, then it’s a clear demonstration that you’re abilities as a writer aren’t at publishing quality. And, ask yourself honestly, if you had picked up this synopsis (on the back of a book at a bookstore etc), would you be enticed to read the whole story?

So go thank your editor today. Or, if you’re a reader and not a writer, give a big shout-out to the editors of your favourite books. They put a lot of hard work in helping the author finesse their writing and ideas into the amazing product you hold as gospel today.

Who Owns Star Wars?

I sincerely hope this is my last post on Star Wars for a long time, but I felt the need to speak after seeing so much “fan”-bashing over the latest film.

I’m putting fan in quotes here because I’m not entirely sure if the *real* fans are the haters or the lovers. Both sides seem to equally claim and deny to be a fan. It’s a confusing mess.

There are a lot of flaws in the last film. I’m not going to deny it. BUT, I think a lot of these issues were a result of trying to cram in too large of a story into too small a space. There are rumours floating around of a potential director’s cut as J. J. Abrams had said he wished he could have done a Part I + Part II of Episode IX – but it would’ve broken the 3 trilogy structure.

So yes, there are problems with pacing and character development, and not much time to just breathe and enjoy the film.

That being said, I’m not sure I understand the venemous backlash against the film. “Dumpsterfire” and other less tasteful words have been used to describe the film. But probing into these emotions doesn’t seem to get me any real answers. Vague statements that cover general concepts (like issues of pacing) may be aired, but these concepts don’t seem to correlate to the sheer level of hatred. (If you have more concrete ideas, please do comment below. I would love to get to the heart of it). A similar outcry occurred with Episode VIII. (Go read the blog at BitterGertrude for an absolute fantastic breakdown of the response to the last film; you’ll see a number of similar complaints being made for Episode IX).

Part of the reason, of course, is because popular culture is personal. It’s owned by the fans. Any deviation from what they would like to see is a betrayal to the *real* fans. But, then we’re still left with the lingering question of “how do we define “real” fans?”. And, more importantly, “why are we gatekeeping?”

There have been cries that the studio gave into “fan service”; a criticism that confuses me to no end. (Tangent: if Disney really gave into fan service, they would have backed the Poe/Fin-ship instead of raining down hard with hints of heternormative relationships. Really, my biggest problem with the film is the lack of aliens in character roles that are played by humans purely, it seems, for hints of romantic interest. But I guess interspecies relations would be even more of a transgression than LGTBQ+ ones). So who are the “fans” that Disney is supposedly giving into? For instance, while Kelly Marie Tran (who plays Rose Tico) was cyberbullied after the release of Episode VIII, there was also a strong fan movement supporting her. Her character was downplayed in the final film, but is this due to the “backlash” of people rejecting her character, or due simply to intricacies of the plot and lack of time? Interestingly, it seems to me that the same people who complained that Episode VIII focused too much on character development and not on plot, are not decrying the lack of character development. So did the studio give into the cries from (mostly) hetero normative, white, middle-class males?

Yet, we not only still have a strong female cast (more females than male supporting characters as in the first 6 films), but we also have a complete revision of the hero’s narrative so that Episode IX re-frames Leia as the Skywalker hero. While it’s almost impossible to break the epic narrative cycle, it IS possible to shift it into something new. And Star Wars does that. As I said in my last post, Episode IX confirms and reveals Leia as the hero of the story. She passes on her torch to Rey; a matriarchal lineage, rather than the patriarchal heritage from Anakin to Luke to Ben. It’s this shift, I suspect, that the “fans” are reacting against, rather than anything else.

Which brings me to my final thought. The criticism that “George Lucas didn’t want it done that way.”

Okay. Well. 1. Then he shouldn’t have sold the rights to the movies. But he did. For a lot of money. And he did knowing they can do what they want to the story. Why are you giving your loyalty and allegiance to a man who didn’t return that favour to his fans?

2. George Lucas also gave us Jar-Jar Binks. So, use a more valid objection, please.

Which leads me to 3. George Lucas is not infallible. His original trilogy was based on the heroic pattern found in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was published in 1949 – 70+ years ago! Campbell’s theories, while at times useful, are also restricted and limited. The new series revises the heroic pattern by shifting the story onto Leia and Rey.

And finally 4. This shift, in my mind, undoes a lot of the damage that George Lucas did with Episodes I-III. And no, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks (although :/ ) , I’m talking about Padme. Here we have this kick-ass female leader; queen, solider. And she’s relegated to the place of abused wife who dies because “her heart is breaking.” I mean. COME ON. Leia would never had said that line. Neither would Rey. Can you picture it? (I’m now visualizing Leia saying anything remotely like that to Han Solo, and I’m sure Carrie Fisher is looking down and giving me the finger at the very idea.)

So. Who Owns Star Wars? Well, I’m sorry to tell you fanboys that the torch has been passed. And that, I believe, is the heart of much (although not all) of the vehement, emotional, disgust aimed at the last film. Turns out, women can be the hero of the Epic journey too.

(Yay! It’s 2020! We finally made it! … :/ )

The Skywalker Saga and Why the Latest Trilogy Kicks Ass

*Major Spoiler Alerts*

2 days later and I’m still thinking about the Rise of Skywalker (2019) screening. (Yes, I’m late to the game. It’s hard to get out to the cinema when you have a small infant.) I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there AREN’T any flaws. Every work has areas where it can improve. Yes, there are pacing issues, and character development isn’t as nuanced as it could be. But really, I think *some* of these complaints are a bit out of place for a movie that is trying to encapsulate an epic narrative within 2-2.5 hours. (More on my thoughts of the Epic and Star Wars here.)

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think The Rise of Skywalker is brilliant in its subtly. All along, the story that the last three movies have been trying to tell us is that of Leia’s. Leia is the most important Skywalker. She is the Last of the Jedi.

Let’s go back to episode VII (The Force Awakens, 2015), where Luke doesn’t appear on screen until the very final moments of the movie; and, when he does appear, he has no lines. Yes, the story is all about anticipating his arrival. But, at the climatic moment, his entrance on to the screen achieves nothing.

This continues in episode VIII (The Last Jedi, 2018) as Luke is reluctant to return to the story. And even when he does, he manages to do it without leaving his hermitage, through astral projection only. Meanwhile, we have Leia throughout the three movies as the head of the rebellion. She’s The General, leader of the Resistance. While Luke is passive and inert, Leia acts.

And remember the moment in The Last Jedi where Leia survives by using the Force. (Who didn’t hold their breath and breathe with her?). It was there all along, The Last Jedi isn’t Luke. Even after he’s gone, there’s another trained Jedi in the rebellion.

While Leia’s training isn’t mentioned until the final installment, this story, Leia’s story, is hinted at all the way back in episode V (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) when Luke abandons his training (launching him toward a path to the Dark Side) and Obi-Wan states that “all hope is lost”. Yoda replies that “no, there is another.” The word “hope” of course evokes the title of the episode IV (A New Hope, 1977), which, I would argue, is also about Leia’s journey more than Luke. She brought hope to the Resistance, more than Luke does. This idea is enhanced by the final words of Rogue One (2016), when Leia responds to the question “what is it?” (i.e the data package just handed to her) with “hope”.

The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the potential of Yoda’s cryptic words. It’s not only that Leia is another Skywalker, Luke’s twin, and has the potential to bring back the balance. It’s that she does, on her own merits (i.e not through her relationship to a patriarchal figure). She organizes a resistance with a movement and message so powerful that no single man can hope to take her place. (The exchange between Poe and Finn on Kef Bir and then again at the rebel base really drives this home.)

So while there have been a number of criticisms launched at the new trilogy complaining that we’re still stuck on “the Skywalker story” with all the events of the universe boiling down to a family feud, I’d argue that there is so much more depth to this simplified narrative. The Skywalker Saga (which is what I will be henceforth referring to it as for the rest of my days) is not just about balance, the Force, and a decades long war against the tyrannies of government. It’s also about one woman’s strength; a woman who had the mind and heart to keep a resistance together for decades, even after her entire family (brother, son, and partner) walks out on her.

What a brilliant message to end the series on.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharat, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.

A Re-Read of the first 10 pages of Piers Anthony’s A Spell of Chameleon

After a December hiatus (tangential note: I blame Christmas for that; turns out it’s not a practical idea to make a handcrafted stocking for your baby while on maternity leave), I decided to mosey into the next decade with a re-read some of my favourite Fantasy books that I haven’t touched in years.

I’m now contemplating how many of these books I’m going to absolutely HATE now that I’m reading them as an adult; by which I mean, *not* as a person who disparages children’s fiction, but as a person who can think critically and is more socially aware. In most of my research to date I have focused on 1990-2010 literature, with a brief study dipping into the ’60s. When I started my postgraduate work, though I couldn’t put a finger on why, I knew that ’70s and ’80s Fantasy didn’t appeal to me. I’m desperately hoping as I continue my re-read that the horribly misogynist pattern that I discovered in Anthony doesn’t hold up for any other books I re-examine.

After re-reading the first 10 pages of Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon (all I can stomach really), it shocked me how blatant the misogyny was. Keep in mind that I’ve been studying ’90s and ’00s Fantasy for the last decade, where authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin are accused of misogyny because of flat, stereotypical depiction of women (Jordan), or because of their mistreatment of the gender (Martin). And then we have Anthony, who doesn’t believe that women are people in any sense of the word. They are objects, or creatures, designed specifically to fulfill men’s “needs.” That idea doesn’t get more blatant than the chapter where the main character plants and grows a nymph in order to have her as a sex slave. (I didn’t read that far, but it all came screaming back to me as I started the book.)

As early as page 2, we have the main character introduce the supposed love of his life (the woman he wants to marry, or, at least, the women he has to marry in order to have sex with her). The passage reads:

All plants had their enchantments, but no spell could eliminate the need for light, water, and healthy soil. Instead, magic was used to make these necessities of the vegetable kingdom more available, [….].

Bink looked at the girl beside him as she stepped through a slanting sunbeam. He was no plant, but he too had needs, and even the most casual inspection of her made him aware of this.

Piers Anthony, A Spell for Chameleon, p. 1-2

So here we have a man who has brought his beloved out to a romantic lookout point in order to ask for her hand in marriage, and the first thought on his mind when he sees her is how he has “needs”. Are you swooning with the romance of it all? And what a segue-way; contemplating the needs of a plant to a needs of a man. It’s an awkward transition because there ISN’T an nice, normal, respectable way of blatantly stating that women are there to be sexual partners for men.

There’s not much more I can add to this criticism that reviewers Jason Heller and Oren Ashkenzi haven’t already said in their detailed breakdowns on why the book/series/author is horrible. They’re both worth checking out, as they each bring a unique take on the misogyny. Heller dwells into some of Anthony’s other books to flag the pedophilia that keeps cropping up. And Ashkenzi uses the text to give practical lessons on writing; his paragraph-by-paragraph analysis gives a good idea of how Anthony’s novel could have been so much better.

The one thought that does occur to me in re-reading these pages is it’ll be interesting to see whether other ’70s and ’80s Fantasy books have aged well. While reading a handful of reviews posted on other blogs, the theme that kept popping up for me is people who read the work as a teenager and loved it, but re-reading it as an adult realized what a disgusting misogynist mess it is. I wonder if this has to do with maturation (although the main character is nearly 25, he comes across more as a teenager and may appeal more to an adolescent crowd), or whether we, as readers, have become more critically aware. I’d like to think it’s the latter; the young adults of today seem to be a much more socially-conscious group than earlier generations and I can imagine a number of young adults picking up the book and immediately objecting to the obvious male gaze and objectification of women. But I can’t help but contemplate the effect this hugely popular author has had readers in the ’70s. Among all the negative reviews, there are also a number that praise the book for it’s “refreshing” take on sexuality. The very idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I hope I’ll be able to stomach other re-reads as my great adventure continues.