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?

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.

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.

Unedited Chaos (and a Tangent on The *Best* Pokemon)

Ah, the first blog post. It is infinitely worse than the “blank” page (that moment of writer’s block when you can’t seem to get started). Why is it worse? Because it’s public; unedited (or only mildly so); with no opportunity to muse and stew over each word choice. Any awkward sentences or bad ideas laid bare for everyone to witness your shame.

(Wow, so, we’re like a minute in and this has already spiraled into darkness. There’s is an uplifting turn, I swear. But first the promised tangent.)

My brother recently came back from a holiday in Japan and he brought his nephew – my 6-month-old son – two stuffed Pokemon dolls: Pikachu and Eevee.

“Eevee’s the best one of them all,” I confided to my husband (he doesn’t “get” Pokemon, so he didn’t argue this bold statement).

Eevee IS the best Pokemon IMHO because it can become so many different things! The base form has so much unlocked potential, and more and more iterations keep getting added as the franchise continues. Eevee has the possibility of becoming so many aspects of itself, all depending on a single choice made.

… Writing is like that. While the nature of blog-style of writing is unfiltered, sometimes this raw clay is more exciting than the pristine finished product. It’s full of possibilities; different directions to take; a potential for mistakes to become beautiful discoveries; or for different iterations to reveal something new.

There’s an underlying theme in my first book (The Shape of Fantasy, out this week!): an element of chaos theory that permeates the text. I’m not sure at what point I discovered chaos or starting identifying as a chaos theorist. Chaos theory is the idea that there is a recognizable pattern, or a repetition, but this pattern is unpredictable. This is an idea I discuss throughout my book, but what I neglected to state baldly is the idea that the reason the pattern is unpredictable is because, in the real-world, there are too many variable at play. Sure, the principle of science is that an experiment must be replicable; but these experiments are done in lab conditions, an area where every part of the environment can be controlled: temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. If a single factor is uncontrolled, it can impact the entire experiment. Which is why weather is so often used as an example of a chaotic system – because trying to create an experiment to measure weather in lab conditions is nearly impossible. And yet, scientists can still discern some pattern in weather conditions (enough to make a prediction of whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow).

It’s this principle of chaos that I apply throughout my book – and in life in general. Life is chaos. There may be patterns, a repetitive journey people follow (birth, school, work, death.) But there are so many different patterns to this “formula.” Similarly, Epic Fantasy has very well defined patterns (it is this structure that I explore throughout the book). But a great storyteller will manipulate and play with these patterns, mixing the variables to offer something new.

Writing any piece of work has that potential of chaos in it. The number of drafts you go through are all iterations of the same product. In the coming weeks, I will reflect on my own thought and writing processes for The Shape of Fantasy; directions I wish I could’ve taken it. I’ll refrain from reflecting on the smaller editing choices and focus on the big pictures. But it’s important to note that, when writing, minute changes can result in drastically different effects. For example, the simple act of italicisation – of emphasing one single word over the other – can change the meaning and tone. Likewise, every word, sentence structure, paragraph break can change the meaning and tone further. In this regard, every single choice can be important.

No wonder so many people fear the blank page.

But the blank page is not meant for perfection. It’s meant to be moulded, kneaded at, played with for a second, third, tenth draft. So I am here to assure you that there is nothing to fear about the blank page.

It’s the published page you should be agonizing over.