Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015 Year In Review: The Books I've Read in 2015 with Brief Thoughts


FICTION

Horns by Joe Hill
See blog article.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
A series about a wizard living in modern-day Chicago. Highly recommend. I read eleven of them. I especially enjoyed that they didn't all occur one after another. Years could occur between them and many characters were people Dresden met "off stage."

Codex Alera by Jim Butcher
Fantasy series of six books. I really like Jim Butcher and highly recommend his books. I liked this series better than The Dresden Files, if that is possible. I liked the main character.

Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente
The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making is the first, there are five total, but I could only find the first four. Shelved in the "Young Adult" section of the library, these clever stories about a girl alone in fairyland build a subtle theme of family. Although her mother is not present, she is a character firmly drawn in her daughter's thoughts such as, "September thought her mother was prettier than any of the girls on the screen" and "she was her mother's daughter, always and forever, and felt sure whatever she set her hands to would work" (61, 118). The first book has a quest for September to find "thy mother's sword," which turns out for her to be a wrench. I really enjoyed the underlying story about her relationship with her mom.

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
Great characters. Was really impressed by how they held things together when the plot got weird. Interesting premise. Fantastical murder mystery. Kate Daniels is the main character. Fights against Masters of the Dead who control vampires with were-animals of various types. An Upir that can't keep it in its pants.
Interesting world. Atlanta post a magical outbreak. Technology and magic working intermittently. New organizations and government branches.

 Temeraire fantasy/alternate history by Naomi Novik
Love this author. Possible new favorite. See blog article on the first one. Each book in the series is just as good or better.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
From my bookshelf. Juvenile novel tell how the classic story of Peter Pan began. Quite imaginative.

The Tale of Despereau by Kate DiCamillo
From my bookshelf. One of my favorite juvenile novels. My mom read it out loud to me when I was younger, and I can still hear her voice and see her lips form the words when I read it to myself.

Hounded and Hexed by Kevin Hearne
The first two novels in the Iron Druid Chronicles. Reminded me a great deal of the Dresden Files: snarky main character with a magical talent and many enemies both mortal and divine. Much shorter, though, and a tad raunchier.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
See blog article.

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan
Maybe doesn't belong here since I quite several chapters in, but I began the book because on the back George R.R. Martin is quoted as saying, "It's like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones." It soon became obvious that the story did not resemble Jurassic Park at all, despite the dinosaurs, leaving a fantasy drama. Not the genre I enjoy; but others might. Side note: How self-absorbed do you have to be to compare another's book to your own?

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
From my bookshelf. See blog article.

The Wager by Carolyn Brown
From my bookshelf, but decided to get rid of it. The wager is about co-vice presidents of a successful oil company living for a week on minimum wage while keeping their identities secret, but the story was about the impact this had on their budding romance. I just don't enjoy this sort of thing like I did before I was married. The glorified hand-holding and stolen kisses. I experience that for myself now, and I don't feel the tension anymore.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
My sister left this out on the couch when we went to visit home for the weekend. I started it, then had to get it from the library after we left. Same sister bought my paperback copies from me because I intended to replace them with hardcovers. Really need to do that!

The Hobbit and LOTR by J.R.R Tolkien
Intermittently. When I say that Naomi Novik is my new favorite, Tolkien is, of course, exempt as he is the greatest author ever.


NON-FICTION

Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Film Triology edited by Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and annotated by Douglas A. Anderson

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles Art & Design by Daniel Falconer

The QPB Companion to The Lord of the Rings edited by Brandon Geist

Bloom's Modern Critical Views J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Harold Bloom

Bloom's Modern Critical Views J.R.R. Tolkien 2nd Edition edited by Harold Bloom

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

The Hobbits: The Many Lives of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin by Lynnette Porter

The Myth of the American Superhero by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett

"On Fairy Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien

"Frodo's Batman" by Mark T. Hooker

"'Time Shall Run Back': Tolkien's The Hobbit" by Jean MacIntyre

"The Four-Part Structure of Bilbo's Education" by William H. Green

"Campbell and the Inklings--Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams" by Vernon R. Hyles

"The Many Faces of the Hero in The Lord of the Rings" by Stephen Potts

If you would like to hear more about any of these, let me know.
I always appreciate recommendations for 2016!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Christmas Redemption: Christmas Movies and the Warped Scrooge Motif

In general, modern Christmas movies offer a version of holiday redemption, usually a lesson about the importance of family and a reminder that materialism doesn't lead to happiness. However, often it seems that this theme is misplaced. It doesn't actually belong in the movies that exhibit it, resulting in a sexist display against men.

The Scrooge Motif

The classic example these movies follow is, of course, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In this story, Ebenezer Scrooge placed such value on money that it caused him to undervalue his family and community. As a result, he withdrew from them and used his wealth and power to oppress others. However, a Christmas miracle causes him to reevaluate his views. He repents and God bless us everyone.

The two "Christmas" movies I have watched thus far this year have, on the surface, mimicked Dickens' theme of redemption, but after reflection are more of an attack on manhood. These movies are National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Christmas with the Kranks, both of which I watched for the first time this year.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) stars Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, the father of the Griswold family who holds impossibly high standards for the big family get together. As each Christmas tradition falls comically about his ears, Clark predictably undervalues family and overvalues stuff or--his personal crutch--everything working smoothly. He begrudges his brother and his family who comes unexpectedly and the many older relatives who require extra care. When the Christmas lights don't work, he stays outside trying to fix them instead of coming in and spending time with his relatives. His wife tries to convince him not to behave this way, especially as he comes under more and more stress.

Clark is short-tempered, foul-mouthed, and lewd, but I cannot accuse him being a true Scrooge. As the film progresses, he reassures his niece that Santa will visit her and sets aside his differences with his brother to help make that happen. While his own finances are tight, he gives to the less fortunate members of his family. When the turkey dinner turns out extremely dry, he eats it and tells his sister-in-law who cooked it that it tastes good.

However, he still needs to be redeemed from his Scrooge-ness.

Christmas with the Kranks

Christmas with the Kranks (2004) stars Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as Luther and Nora Krank, who find themselves alone for the first Christmas in over twenty years while their daughter is out of the country. Luther, after a particularly trying experience with Chicago weather proposes to Nora that they skip Christmas and go on a cruise instead. The Kranks decide to skip all the Christmas traditions, forgoing a tree from the local boy scouts and a calendar from the police force. No Christmas cards for Christmas Eve party, either. He explains in a letter, "I am not angry, and I will not yell 'humbug' at anyone who offers me a holiday greeting."

The first half of the film is the two of them fighting with their community over this decision. Luther says to his pushy neighbor, "If you're trying to make me feel guilty, get off of it. And you know what else? I'd appreciate it if you and everyone else around here would just respect my wishes." When they discover that the Kranks do not leave until Christmas day, Nora's friends, who usually attend their party, ask, "Oh, then why don't you have the party anyway?" Nora replies, frustrated, "Because we don't want to!"

Luther "Scrooge" Krank

In this endeavor, Luther is painted as the villain by his community. Although the Kranks will save $3000 by taking the cruise instead of celebrating Christmas, he repeatedly says the issue is not about the money. They are simply taking a break and spending their time a little differently. However, the people around him continuously refer to him as a Scrooge. His only motivation is pinching pennies, and he is consumed with himself. He is a cheapskate who doesn't understand the true meaning of Christmas. While Luther cannot be said to undervalue his family, he does undervalue his community, who believe Christmas to be a "neighborhood thing".

However, he and his wife present a united front against their neighbors, even if Nora is a little less firm about her conviction than her husband. That is until their daughter surprises them with a call Christmas Eve, saying she will be there tonight with her new fiance. Then, Nora changes her mind. Suddenly, Luther's idea is no longer "genius," it is "stupid" and she repeatedly tells him so. They must now pull together a Christmas celebration--including the party--at the last minute. The neighborhood comes together to help them in time for their daughter's arrival, and they have a wonderful time.

Luther, though, is unhappy, and Nora tells him he needs to think of others first instead of himself. He, like Clark, needs to be redeemed from his behavior.

Sexist Redemption

These portrayals are distinctly sexist against men. The wife in these situations knows best, and the husband is the one who must be redeemed, but why? Clark's desire to make an ideal Christmas for everyone is not wrong, and his stress and frustration is understandable when electrocution, fire, kidnapping, and explosions are contributing. Spending Christmas on a cruise is not wrong either, but even if Luther's goal had been to save money, such a thing would not be sinful. What exactly, then, are these husbands being redeemed from?

Clark's wife tries to keep him from reacting or overreacting to the things that go wrong. When he cannot, he is misbehaving. Nora legitimizes Luther's cruise goal, but as soon as she changes her mind, the idea loses its credibility. Her goal of keeping her daughter from knowing about how they overturned their own plans to cater to her becomes the most important one. When Luther fails to appreciate this, he has failed. In both of these films, the husband's hopes, dreams, and disappointments are simply selfishness.

To be redeemed, both Clark and Luther must give up their own feelings and goals and adopt the ones that their wives sanction. When they do, they become generous, Christmas-spirited husbands. They are redeemed, but this redemption has nothing to do with Christmas.

Friday, November 20, 2015

From My Bookshelf: Inkheart

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke was a favorite of mine when I was younger, and recently I snatched up a nice copy at a local secondhand store. In my opinion, it is one of the better Juvenile Fiction books. Funke is a wonderful author--I really must get myself a copy in the original German, but I feel that the translator Anthea Bell does a great job.

Inkheart

The main character is a twelve-year-old girl named Meggie, who's father Mo is such a good reader that when he reads aloud he pulls characters out of their stories. Unfortunately, these characters swap places with someone from our world, and Meggie's mother was "read into" the book Inkheart, while several unsavory characters were "read out" of it. The central conflict is between Meggie's family and  Capricorn, the leader of these characters. He attempts to force Mo to read other things out of books like gold and one of his killing tools "the Shadow." Along the way, Meggie and Mo solicit help from her great aunt Elinor (a book collector/horder), a boy named Farid (a character read out of Tales From the Thousand and One Nights), Dustfinger (a character read out of Inkheart), and Fenoglio (Inkheart's author). Obviously, the language tends to drift into the meta from time-to-time.

My copy of Inkheart. Bought it secondhand,
but it is in beautiful condition and still
smells like the dust of faraway places!
A Book-lover's Dream

Funke does an excellent job of capturing the mystical draw of the written word. Meggie's world is full of the wonder of stories. Inkheart does not simply tap into the emotions of book-sympathizers. It is also a very enjoyable tale.
 Any book-lover will be jealous of her home where "stacks of books were piled high all over the house--not just arranged in neat rows on bookshelves" and positively green over Elinor's house where every wall--except in the kitchen--is lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves (Funke 4).

During this particular reading, however, three thoughts rose to my mind.

1. Who Is the Hero of Inkheart?

Obviously, Meggie is the main character of the book that sits on my shelf, but the book called "Inkheart" (identified hereafter with quotes instead of italics) within the story must also have a hero? We know that in the world of "Inkheart" there are many dangers as well as beautiful things. We know that Capricorn and his men are antagonists. Basta and the Shadow are antagonists. Dustfinger is morally ambiguous, so not a hero--plus we discover that he dies in the story before the end. We also discover through Fenoglio that Capricorn does not die at the end of the story, but escapes to appear in the sequel he was contemplating at the time. The plot of "Inkheart" remains unknown to us, but surely there is someone who rises to be a hero? Fenoglio named the book to reflect Capricorn's black heart, so perhaps he is intended to be a sort of anti-hero?

I only wonder this because it seems to me that when you want to defeat the bad guys, the good guy who defeats them in the story might be a good place to start.

2. What Is Happening to the Story?

We are encouraged to think of the stories as other worlds. Mo explains that the stories don't change after the characters have been read out of them and theorizes that perhaps these are only shadows of the real characters who remain within the book. This presents some problems such as can more than one Capricorn be read out of the story? And what about Meggie's mother who was read into the story? She didn't leave a shadow. At the end Meggie's mother explains that the people in "Inkheart" only spoke of Capricorn "as if he had gone away for a while" (Funke 529). But wouldn't that change the story? I finally concluded that such an explanation only works for a story without a plot or for characters like Farid who were only mentioned briefly in their own stories.

3. A Knife to My Child's Throat

By the climax, I was very tired of intimidation. Capricorn built his empire on it, apparently. If Mo refused to read Capricorn's Shadow out of the book, he would threaten Meggie. If Mo escaped, they held Meggie as bait. If he didn't come for her, it is assumed that they would hurt her or even kill her.

By the end of the story this scenerio had played out so many times that I wished someone would refuse to be intimidated by the threats. Kill my family? Fine, but I won't help you do the same or worse to others. After all, refusing to stop someone from doing one bad thing by doing another bad thing doesn't make you guilty of the thing they do. Helping someone do a bad thing, though, that is clearly wrong. Now, obviously, I understand that love for one's family is a powerful motivator that does not always prompt one towards good. I also understand that this is a children's story, and such rhetoric is not appropriate. I was just frustrated with the character's helplessness.

Conclusion

I still love the story! I would encourage anyone with kids between 7 and 14 to read Inkheart to them. It is a really fun one to read aloud, after all, and fosters that sense of wonder about books. I would love to hear from anyone who has read this story themselves, too!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Beauty: A Brief Review of an Ugly Sleeping Beauty Tale

Sarah Pinborough's book Beauty: A Wicked Sleeping Beauty Tale follows a prince, a huntsman, and Red Riding Hood as they enter sleeping beauty's kingdom and awaken her. What they didn't know is that Beauty has a split personality: she is also the Beast (a crazy witch who enjoys drinking blood, torturing people, and general debauchery).

Unimaginative

Overall, the story is stark and unimaginative. I mentioned in my review of Cinderella that there are many really good retellings of classic fairy tales, but this isn't one of them. It is as if Pinborough took the bones of half-a-dozen or so fairy tales and cast them on the ground to see how they crossed when they landed. Rumpelstiltskin pricks Beauty with the spindle, and his daughter Rapunzel is Red Riding Hood's grandmother. Red Riding Hood falls in love with the wolf, and the huntsman finds a pair of glass slippers. The whole story is a re-smashing of tales that already existed, with nothing of grace or originality to set it apart.

Immature

Pinborough includes no fewer than three sex scenes in a book a mere 178 pages long. An attempt to preach against sexist double-standards seems to exist, but it is bogged down and muddled by the clumsy attempts at titillation.

First, the Huntsman engages in a one night stand, giving the reader a bit of a lecture about the follies of double-standards regarding virginity. He thinks to himself, "They were all just animals, after all, and why should a woman deny herself pleasure simply because an insecure man might think less of her?" (75). Pinborough seems to argue that women shouldn't be expected to "deny" themselves if men are not, and men are not, so everyone should enjoy each other! There are three problems with this argument. First, it assumes that a woman remains a virgin because of the male expectations imposed upon her and not for any motivation of her own, thereby stripping women of sexual agency through abstinence. Second, it assumes that a virgin groom does not exist and that, as such, women have no opinion regarding the past sexual encounters of the men they marry. Lastly, the argument denies any consequences of engaging in willy-nilly sexual activities. There are no consequences; people are just animals; and anyone with objections is "insecure."

Nevertheless, I would have more respect for the argument if it was upheld by the rest of the characters. Later, Red Riding Hood has sex with a werewolf. Of interest to note: the context from her point of view is sex in a loving, long term relationship and not a one night stand. While she certainly can't be argued to be denying herself, she is experiencing the moment in the assumption of exclusivity. Both of these sexual events are described with just enough detail to be arousing and were not completely unexpected to me, so I shrugged them off, glanced over them, and got back to the meat of the plot.

Crude and Disgusting

Although both of these encounters could have been written by a twelve-year-old, what really drove the story into immaturity was the prince's experience with the Beast. When Beauty changes into the Beast, the first minister tries to keep the prince in his room. The prince suspects that something is being hidden from him, so he leaves the room and explores the castle. He finds a ballroom full of young people doing it. There are three-some and lesbian acts (no gay equivalents = a sexist objectification of women). Five paragraphs describe the events of this ball as nothing else is described in the whole of the book. However, it cannot be argued that they were described any better. Not much is truly required of either imagination or experience to write about sex and deviant sexual acts. It just takes an immature fascination.

The prince is welcomed by the Beast. He feels attracted to her and wants to have sex with her (some spell is at work), but she tells him they can't have sex until their wedding night. That's ok, though, because he can still enjoy the ball with the two women she pushes him towards. What are the standards here? We are all animals and should have sex with whomever we want, one night stand or long term relationship, but not with someone we plan to marry until we're married? How is the preserving of Beauty's purity in this situation not a double-standard?

A Wicked Tale

The term "wicked" has several connotations. Perhaps my east-coast heritage brings phrases like "wicked-good" to mind first, but one cannot help but think of the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire when it comes to a re-writing of a classic children's tale for adults. Unfortunately, the reader is treated to none of the complexities in which that tale relishes in Beauty: A Wicked Sleeping Beauty Tale. Instead, by the word "wicked," Pinborough seems to mean crude, immature, and even disgusting. I cannot honestly say the book was "otherwise fantastic." A story isn't "dark" because it contains sex. A story is dark when elements like sexual sin, rape, violence, drugs, or death are confronted by the characters. Instead, after their brush with the Beast, the main characters put her back to sleep and escape. A conflict between light and dark is introduced and abandoned, solving nothing. But at least everyone got laid.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

I...To What Purpose? A Brief Reflection on The Long Earth

Today I finished reading The Long Earth, a science-fiction novel coauthored by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. In anticipation of enjoying the book, I also brought the second and third books home from the library at the same time. While I may still read them, I was disappointed in the first.

Long Earth

In The Long Earth, multiple dimensions, each with their own Earth (referred to collectively as "Long Earth"), become suddenly accessible to nearly everyone. These other dimensions are not variations of history, so much as of evolution. No humans exist on any of them. All that is needed to travel between them is a simple device called a "Stepper" or, in the case of "natural steppers" like the main character Joshua, nothing more than an effort of will. People can travel "East" or "West" to Earths on either side of ours. Certain limitations exist, like you can only bring along whatever you carry and no iron can cross at all.

Boring

Datum Earth (the original) is highly impacted by the sudden abundance of resources coming in ("gold isn't worth its wight in gold any more" 35) and sudden exodus of a fifth of its population heading out. Conflicts arise as people who were prosperous have the economy pulled out from under them, governments lose power, and anyone can appear in a locked room, steal, kill, or destroy, and then disappear again. Police Officer Monica Jansson certainly has an interesting time dealing with these problems and anticipating others. Helen Green, the daughter of a family leaving Datum to start a settlement 101,754 Earths away, writes in her diary about the journey and the difficulty of leaving behind her brother Rod, who cannot "step" even with a Stepper and was, therefore, trapped at home and abandoned.

The premise of the book is fascinating, but unfortunately, the story follows Joshua Valienté as he travels the nearly empty worlds with sentient human/computer Lobsang. They are traveling deeper than anyone else to discover things of possible profit to humanity, but, most of the time, even the characters are bored. They sit, passing millions of Earths in an airship and occasionally sending out probes.

To What Purpose?

The greatest conflict is the questions about the purpose of the human race--questions ultimately left unanswered. The characters refer to God, fate, or some outside force as having acted upon them in the revelation of these multiple Earths, and they discuss why--what reason should they have this ability. They discuss whether or not they "deserve" this sudden blessing in space and resources when humanity has squandered the first Earth they were given. But then characters talk about all of these ecosystems driven by evolution and refer to themselves as atheists who should not believe in either supernatural power or a greater purpose. There are nuns and Buddhists, but no one prays. A mythology underlies the process of stepping, but it is shrouded in "science."

The theme also waffles between the American dream of exploration and colonization--small communities working together for great prosperity with minimal interference from the government--and an accusatory environmental perspective. Are humans destructive of worlds, or is the desire to change the earth admirable? Is profit bad while prosperity is good? Is spending time with other people sub-optimal or does it provide a vital sense of community? These questions identify different ideas about humanity's responsibilities and purpose, but make no attempt to guide the reader towards a conclusion.

Conclusion

The story dragged. Its most interesting parts took place closer to home, where the conflict occurred, not out in the boonies with Joshua. The theme was jumbled and read like a freshman's research paper, explaining each possible position without taking a stance or forming an argument. The world the authors built serves as a platform from which they ask no new questions nor present new perspectives from which to answer them.


Pratchet, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long Earth. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. Print.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Do You Belong to a Cult? Fandom and the American Monomyth

In my last article, I discussed the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in light of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, as discussed in their book The Myth of the American Superhero. If you are unfamiliar with their theory, that article might be a good place to start. In this article, I would like to reflect on Lawrence and Jewett's discussion of implications of the American monomyth (for the entire entertainment industry, not only American) and the religious fervor that surrounds certain stories employing it.

Secularization of the Redemption Story

In stories featuring the American monomyth, the hero stands as a Christ figure. He is chosen, either by fate or by a guru-like figure. He controls powers beyond those of ordinary men. Through this anointing and superior ability, he is uniquely qualified to battle evil and redeem Eden’s people. Lawrence and Jewett write that the secularization of the Redeemer, “did not eliminate the need for redemption, as the Enlightenment had attempted to do, but rather displaces it with superhuman agencies” (44). This religious heritage encourages audiences to view the monomyth as possessing the same power religion levies. As a result, “fandom began to emerge as a new form of religious community” (Lawrence 47).

Fandom as Religion

“Religion is taking one’s stories seriously.” I cannot remember where I heard this, but it came to mind as I was reading The Myth of the American Superhero. Lawrence and Jewett wrote in 2002, relying heavily on the fandoms of Star Trek and Star Wars for their examples of this phenomenon, but we can see it everywhere today, as belonging to a fandom has gained popularity. They write of fandoms: “In content, mood, and motifs, this is indistinguishable from what is commonly called ‘religion’” (Lawrence 251).

Rituals

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Potter_queue.jpg
Dressing up isn’t just for kids on Halloween anymore. Fans dress for conferences, where they buy merchandise and listen to the latest news about their passion and the people behind it. They dress up for parties and important release dates. They follow on social media their heroes’ real-life alter-egos (actors, directors, authors, etc.). Lawrence and Jewett associate these actions with “the Christian imitation ethic” and the “desire to be like one’s redeemer, to achieve union with him or her, or to gain self-identity by copying the redeemer’s appearance or actions” (258-259). These actions are very similar to religious rituals.

Discipleship and Religious Outpourings

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/383720830730406606/
Over and over fans confess their “redemptive experiences” to one another online or to their heroes via email and letters. “My fandom changed my life.” A favorite story of the Harry Potter fandom involves the actress Evanna Lynch. While she was battling anorexia, she wrote to author J.K. Rowling, who promised her she could be in the movies if she beat her eating disorder. Lynch then went on to do so and play Luna Lovegood. Although the story has been repeatedly corrected (J.K. Rowling certainly encouraged Lynch, but attributing her with the actress’ redemption is exaggerating.), it persists among the faithful.

Similarly, lists of “my fandom taught me…” appear on the internet repeatedly, sometimes claiming superiority to other fandoms. Fans also write what Lawrence and Jewett dub “apocryphal literature,” but we know better as “Fan Fiction,” which “answer essentially theological questions, amplifying and illustrating the belief system” or depict the actions like those of “mystery religions” in which worshipers experience sex with their gods (Lawrence 256).

Dangerous Suspension of Disbelief

Few fans are likely to associate their passion for a story with a religious movement. Lawrence and Jewett admit, “The mocking rejoinder to this earnest question is, of course, that we should ‘lighten up’” (220). However, the content of our fandoms—both the original and fan-produced materials—“remain significantly indebted to the American monomyth—with all of its narcissistic, violent, and undemocratic tendencies” (Lawrence 264). One can add racist and sexist to this list.

I am loath to call for the renunciation of our fantasy affiliations, but I wish to second Lawrence and Jewett’s concerns: “These disturbing echoes indicate that, consciously or unconsciously, Americans are willing to relax and enthusiastically enjoy values contrary to those embodied in its religious and political institutions” (278). We must, as a culture, be more willing to subject our passions to critical examination to see how they affect our nation and our daily lives. I only request for more thought on the deeper values and underlying assumptions on which our stories rely. If, after such reflection, a need for abstinence from these stories becomes evident, then I hope we are strong enough to admit it and follow through.


Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

All images used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and do not indicate the endorsement of me or my work.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: An American Monomyth

I recently watched the 2012 film adaptation of the book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Since I am currently reading The Myth of then American Superhero by John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett (2002), I was sensitive to the correlations between their theory of the "American monomyth" and this film starring Benjamin Walker.

The American monomyth is a pattern of story telling in America that goes as far back as captivity narratives. The archetypal plot formula includes three key features which can be identified in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: (1) an Eden-like community threatened, (2) an intruding and evil "other" group, and (3) a (super-) hero who restores the harmony state (Lawrence 22).

1. Eden

The first element of the monomyth is evident at the opening of the film, when the boy Lincoln witnesses a free-born black member of his community dragged off to be sent south as a slave. The "Eden" in this film begins as Lincoln's boy-hood community and grows into the whole United States. Citizens are law-abiding and cooperative; the only characters who are in favor of slavery are the vampires and a few nameless rich southerners with few lines. The majority are good people who know that slavery is wrong. They all believe, as Lincoln's mother declares, "Until every man is free, we are all slaves" (Abraham). Lawrence and Jewett write that, in the monomyth, "the majority's only failing is its impotence in the face of the evil of others" (23). In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, citizens in general are not bad, only helpless against the power of the vampires, who use slavery to monopolize a racialized food source.

2. Intruding Evil

If the community within "Eden" is good, then any evil must consequently originate from without.Part of this element of the monomyth involves "projecting all evil outward upon others (or in today's literary and theological terminology, 'the other')" (Lawrence 27). In this film, the evil "other" group is made up of vampires.  We see in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter an attempt to place all blame for the moral wrongs of slavery onto this group.

An important part of this element of the monomyth is the failure of "the institutions designed to cope with such challenges," particularly democracy (Lawrence 22). In this film we see the voting public relegated to a "spectator democracy": they elect Lincoln to save them and clap at his speeches, but have no real contribution to the victory at the end (Lawrence 29). In fact, they are instead victims: debtors, slaves, and slaughtered soldiers. The government, until Lincoln becomes president, is unwilling or unable to confront slavery. It is also completely in the dark about vampires, and thus unequipped to deal with them. As a result, only a superhero can redeem the Eden and its people.

3. Superhero

Abraham Lincoln in this film fulfills many of the criteria for a monomythic superhero. In this context "superhero" connotes a man (occasionally a woman) who is more than human. Lincoln is not only smart and athletic, but he can also chop through a tree with one blow. Other criteria include having a secret identity, a self-less zeal for justice that legitimizes revenge, the delaying of sexual (female-relational) fulfillment, and a religious justification for his actions.

Lincoln is an idealistic loner with a secret identity. Only Henry Sturges, his guide and coach, knows that he is a vampire hunter. He admonishes Lincoln, " No distractions, no attachments. No friends or family" (Abraham). When Lincoln first arrives in Springfield, he avoids contact with others and hunts vampires at night. While revenge was his inciting motivation, his restraint "purifies" his desire for it. The audience feels his goal to avenge his mother is justified, and since he shows patience in achieving it, he is in the moral right. To protect others, specifically Mary Todd, he puts off a relationship with her. When she tries to kiss him, he pulls back. After he does marry her, he continues to keep his vampire hunting a secret.

I highly recommend this book!
Lincoln's mission as a hunter is also religiously sanctioned. Henry tells him, "When Judas betrayed Jesus his reward was 30 pieces of silver. At that moment those pieces became a symbol of betrayal in God, of evil. And silver became a curse upon the cursed" (Abraham). Thus, the hunting of vampires is blessed by God. This is a particularly important element of the monomyth, for audiences often feel that "without a superhuman agency of some sort, there is no true redemption" (Lawrence 243). In order for the peace of Eden to return, a superhero must intervene with religiously justified actions.

The American monomyth adopted by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter argues that without Lincoln's motivating speeches, strong will, and resolution to fight the evil outsiders, the victory against slavery and vampires could not have been won.

Conclusion

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter follows the American monomyth archetype described by Lawrence and Jewett thirteen years ago. This archetype is not only a past plot formula, but Hollywood continues to use it for action films today, netting profits as audiences still accept and enjoy the pattern.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Dir. Timur Bekmambetov. Perf. Benjamin Walker. Twentieth Century Fox, 2012. Film.

Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Hamlet Review: The National Theatre Live Event Starring Benedict Cumberbatch

My dog-eared edition of Hamlet
On October 15th, I witnessed the record-setting telecast of The National Theatre's Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I have had the privilege of watching several professional performances of this particular play, so I was eager to see their interpretation. It was certainly worth the lines and four hours of theatre seats! I wanted to share some of the elements of this performance that I especially enjoyed.

Set

As with most Shakespeare plays, Hamlet can be done with extremely little in the way of set design. Other performances I have seen (including The Royal Shakespeare Company's production starring David Tennant in 2009) have been a tad drab. However, The National Theatre's set, designed by Es Devlin, was interesting. There were different levels and spaces on which to conduct scenes and the set pieces were used to great effect. At the end of Act III, all the doors were thrown open and debris blew onto the stage to emphasize Claudius' declaration that he would have Hamlet killed in England (Hamlet Act IV, Scene 3). When we returned from intermission, Coal had been piled up on the stage all over the set, facilitating outdoor scenes like Ophelia's burial and indoor scenes alike, while stressing the degrading mentality of all characters. The set supported the madness theme.

Direction

The stage directions Shakespeare provides are also minimal, so I was also very impressed with this production. Turner made two choices by which I was particularly pleased. First, all of the scenes ran into each other. There was no pause between them, even when one occurred in the same space as a large dining table had been required the scene before. Unneeded set pieces were moved off tastefully and cleverly while the actors continued. The constant movement cut down on the run time considerably. Second, Hamlet's soliloquies were delivered while the other actors suddenly slowed down. As a result, it seemed as if we witnessed Hamlet's mind wander while life continued about him, and he was only rarely on stage alone. It made these long speeches more pleasant and gave Hamlet the attribute of retreating from life rather than seeking isolation. It was an interesting distinction.

Acting

As I mentioned, I've seen several professional Hamlets, so I do, in fact, have rather little to say about Cumberbatch's performance. He was emotive and well-spoken. I have nothing bad to say about his interpretation of Hamlet. However, I was extremely impressed with Sian Brooke's Ophelia. The tragedy of her character was felt even before she went completely mad. Her abandoned suitcase of photographs and solitary barefoot climb up a pile of coal to her last exit, witnessed by Gertrude, made her death impactful instead of trite; Hamlet's distress at her death arose from lost love instead of mere guilt. Gertrude's own decline in the second half of the production mirrored Ophelia's and lent a complexity to her character as well.

Conclusion

Altogether I enjoyed this production and would highly recommend it when it becomes available on DVD/Bluray. Every element of the performance worked with the others to provide a succinct, theme-driven whole.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Cinderella: Beautiful Disappointment

This past weekend I watched the live action Disney Cinderella (2015). No one can deny that this is a beautiful film that highlights all of the technological leaps we have made since the animated version released in 1950. The new mice may not speak, but they make facial expressions and move in ways real mice cannot, while looking extremely believable. Unfortunately, other changes one expects in a live action adaptation of a fairy tale were sorely lacking. The characters were flat (perhaps even worse than the original animation), and the themes were ambiguous when not downright confusing.

Flat Characters

Flat characters are not uncommon in fairy tales, but usually when one is presented anew, the writers flesh out characters’ motivations and cares. In Ella Enchanted (2004 or Gail Carson Levine's book by the same title), Ella must obey every command she is given; in Ever After (1998), the prince doesn’t want to be king, and keeps running away from his responsibilities. This is not true of Disney’s new Cinderella. Good characters are good, and bad characters are bad.

A Kind Heroine

The prince is flat--no surprise there. But so is Cinderella. She is beautiful and kind. Her mother, on her death bed, instructs Ella that she must “have courage and be kind.” Ella is kind to everyone, but the definition of kind is unclear. She is naïve, and lets her step-mother manipulate her into becoming a servant, harbors no resentment, and flippantly forgives her step-mother all in the name of “kindness.” So, at first, being kind seems to result in unpleasant consequences, and is thus ill-advised. However, she is also kind to animals, which results in their kindness to her and which gains the attention of the prince. Thus, being kind may also result in delightful consequences.

Simple Themes Deny Truth

The first confusion of theme comes in Ella’s motivation for being kind: she is a kind person. Her mother’s instruction was not a correction of her previous behavior, but an encouragement for her to continue to be kind. Thus the story makes no statement about the virtues of kindness, but proposes a worldview in which good people are kind, bad people are cruel, and there is no common ground between them.

Secondly, Ella’s statement of forgiveness at the end of the film feels just as empty as her kindness. She forgives easily because she never really understood the hurt they tried to inflict upon her. She is still naïve. Obviously, I think forgiveness is important, and having it modeled in film is a good thing. However, her offering denied an important truth: that forgiveness is difficult. We don’t always want to forgive others even though we must. We see characters in films take revenge or mild retribution all the time and find it satisfying. However, Ella is kind, so she forgives. The flatness of her character allows us to conclude that we, being more nuanced individuals, are not required to give forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Her behavior is a result of who she is and not as a result of her belief in justice or righteousness, but we are called to act from such beliefs and thus become people who are kind.

Conclusion

However, these characters and themes may be sufficient in a children’s story. It was certainly beautiful, and many performances were well done. I was only hoping for more complexity, which would make this retelling memorable.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Star Wars Debate: Who Is the Main Character, a Brief Reflection

With the upcoming release of the latest Star Wars movie, I was reminded of an old debate that arose perhaps largely as a response to the limp writing of Episodes I-III: who is the main character of Star Wars?

The answer for the original trilogy seems straight forward. Luke Skywalker. For some reason this is not universally accepted, but I feel any debating of this point can be resolved by a clear definition of the term “antagonist." However, things in Episodes I-II are hazier. The plot of The Phantom Menace is so fractured between a large number of characters that no one protagonist emerges. Episodes II and III highlight Anikan Skywalker, but he falls into his role as antagonist early in Revenge of the Sith, leaving  perhaps Obi-wan in the place of main character.

I have heard it suggested that the Skywalker family are the central characters of Star Wars. The original trilogy is about Luke (and Leia); Episodes I-III are about Anikan; and The Force Awakens includes the children of Leia and Luke. However, how then to account for the numerous books and video games which contribute to the larger world from the perspectives of other characters and which many consider to be of vital importance to the Star Wars saga?

In the end, I had to conclude that Star Wars is not (or is no longer, and hasn’t been for a while now) about any individual main character. Each story from the world George Lukas designed must be taken on its own merit, its own main character (or lack thereof) belonging to the larger story, which is not dominated by any one character, but by the conflict
between the dark and light sides of the force.


As Frodo tells Sam Gamgee in LotR, the great tales never end, “but the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended” (Two Towers 697). While Lukas’s world is not as succinct as Tolkien’s is, most fans return to Star Wars this Christmas eager for more from the world he has built.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Merlin and Uther Pendragon: A Defense of My Least Favorite King


Warning: Spoilers

I recently began re-watching the BBC TV series Merlin with my husband, who had never seen it before. He surprised me early in the first season by saying he liked Uther, the antagonist of magic and, therefore, of Merlin. The idea that anyone could have sympathetic feelings for such an unreasonable ruler was a bit of a shock for me, but as we continued, I found that there was a great deal to respect about Uther.

Loving Father

Season one has some very negative pictures of Uther as a father, from grabbing Morgana by the throat in a fit of anger, to crushing a flower that will save Merlin’s life to teach Arthur a lesson (Ep8, Ep4). However, it is also apparent that he cares deeply for both of them. He is distraught when Morgana and Arthur fall ill and is attentive at each of their bedsides, even dissolving into tears when he believes Arthur to be dying (Ep6, Ep13).

In “Episode 9: Excalibur,” Uther takes Arthur’s place in a challenge. He tells him afterwards, “I believed you would ide, and that was a risk I could not take. You are too precious to me. You mean more to me than anything I know, more than this entire kingdom and certainly more than my own life.” Uther clearly loves his children, even if his parenting methods are not always agreeable.

Good King
Although Uther does make some pleasant decisions, such as assigning Merlin as Arthur’s servant (a wise thing do with the boy who saved the prince’s life, and a worthwhile reward for an unemployed farm boy), and granting Gaius the title of “Freeman of Camelot” (which I assume means citizenship), he usually makes much more difficult decisions in his role as king, but he does so wisely and fairly.

Uther is a hard man, and he is willing to make hard decisions. When Camelot is hit by a plague, Uther makes the difficult decision to quarter off the lower town where most of the victims live to keep the disease from spreading. He says to Arthur, “What else can I do? I have to protect the rest of the city” (Ep3).  

He shows this same big-picture thinking when Merlin’s home village is attacked by a bandit and his mother begs Uther for aid. “I have the deepest sympathy for you and would have this barbarian wiped off the face of the earth,” he says, but the village lies in another man’s kingdom. “For an army of Camelot to enter it would be an act of war….I cannot risk hundreds of lives for the sake of one village” (Ep10). Uther has a clear idea of his responsibilities as king, and he is able to make the decisions that will most benefit his people.

Consistent Ruler

Finally, on the subject of magic, even if no one seems to agree with his position, Uther is very consistent. At the beginning of “Episode 1: The Dragon’s Call,” it is made clear that magic is against the law in Camelot and punishable by death. The man executed, therefore, knowingly broke the law, even if he didn’t hurt anyone.

In the next episode, Uther is shown to be just when it comes to making these sentences. When Arthur accuses Sir Valiant of using a magic shield, Uther asks Valiant for his defense and Arthur for his evidence. When Arthur can produce nothing conclusive, he does not arrest Valiant, but dismisses the case. Even though Uther was wrong—Valiant was using magic—he still upheld justice.

Finally, Uther is not swayed by bias towards individuals. When a druid boy is trapped in Camelot, Uther sends Arthur to search for him with the intention of executing him when he is caught (Ep8). He, as a druid, performs magic, which is illegal. His age does not excuse him. Furthermore, when Morgana is caught helping the boy, her status as Uther’s ward keeps her from execution, but not from Uther’s anger. She has put him in an uncomfortable position, and he tells her if she does so again, he will not excuse her a second time. Uther expects his citizens to follow the laws, including children and his own kin.

Even though Uther’s rulings on the practice of magic are severe, he is very consistent. When he does make a mistake, such as in “Episode 12: To Kill the King” when he kills Gwen’s father for aiding a sorcerer, he admits his wrong doing and apologizes without prompt. Although he cannot undo the damage, he has the strength to humble himself.

“Do You Think Uther’s a Good King?”

Uther insists to Morgana that his extreme stance against magic is necessary. His experiences twenty years ago have convinced him of it. His rulings may seem severe, but as audience members, we also do not really know what it was like before he banned magic. The only informed opinions we have on the subject are the dragon’s and Gaius’. The dragon is hardly unbiased and takes every opportunity to instruct Merlin that Uther should die. He is also not human, so he is hardly a reliable source about the kingdom’s situation while magic ran rampant.


Gaius, on the other hand, believes that Uther is good for the kingdom. When Merlin asks, pointing out that everyone hates Uther, Gaius says, “’Tis not Uther’s job to be liked. It is Uther’s job to protect the kingdom. Most of his methods are right; sometimes he goes too far….Despite Uther’s failings, he has brought peace and prosperity to this kingdom.” Thus we must assume that Uther, while a hard ruler, is not necessarily a cruel one, and that his stance on magic and its practice has benefited the kingdom overall. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Quest of Erebor: A Critical Reflection on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films

I am not going to make a list of all the ways the films are different from the book. I am not going to dismiss them as garbage either. There are lots of ways to tell a good story. I just don’t think Peter Jackson’s films tell the story they advertise. I think the films ought to have been called “The Quest of Erebor.”

The Quest of Erebor

“The Quest of Erebor” was a little story originally intended to be Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, but removed due to space constrictions. It was first published in Unfinished Tales, and amended in the History. The story was once subtitled, “Gandalf’s account of how he came to arrange the expedition to Erebor and send Bilbo with the Dwarves" (Anderson 367). It casts a big picture look at how Bilbo’s quest affected Middle Ea
rth history from Gandalf’s point of view.

The Hobbit Films

The Hobbit films rely heavily on this appendix for a couple of reasons.  First, it treats the events of The Hobbit as Lord of the Rings prequel as opposed to its own stand-alone story. This is convenient for the films, which cater to an audience arguably more familiar with The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit book. Secondly, Gandalf in The Hobbit is different character than the Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Corey Olsen says in his book Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “The Gandalf who shows up at Bag-End in Chapter One of The Hobbit is not exactly the same character who helps to host Bilbo’s farewell party in Chapter One of The Fellowship of the Ring. A lot happens to the guy in the seventeen years of real-world time that came between those two parties” (14). This is to be expected—after all, The Lord of the Rings is much darker, and its characters reflect that. Finally, Gandalf and Thorin appear as major characters and Bilbo’s role is de-emphasized. This appeals to the current trend in action/adventure films that emphasizes the powerful hero with a dark past as a main character.

Events in Both

“The Quest of Erebor” includes or mentions several scenes which do not appear in The Hobbit book, but do in the films: Gandalf meeting Thorin in Bree (Anderson 369, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Gandalf entreating Thorin to accept Bilbo on the quest (Anderson 373-375, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), and the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur (Anderson 370, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies).

Impact of Characters

There are also several impacts on characters in “The Quest of Erebor” that are reflected in the films besides the greater emphasis of Gandalf and Thorin. First, Thorin is much more antagonistic and contemptuous about the idea of taking Bilbo on the quest. After Thorin meets Bilbo, to Gandalf, “’Thief!’ he snorted. ‘He is as honest as he is silly. His mother died too soon” (Anderson 375). These sentiments are depicted especially harshly in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, until the end when Bilbo saves Thorin’s life. Secondly, in “The Quest of Erebor,” Gandalf is less mysterious as he explains all his thoughts and everything he knew—or didn’t. He says about his decision to send Bilbo, “Well, you know what I decided to do; and it may sound less absurd now than it did then. It seemed so absurd then, even to me, that I laughed at myself, and wondered what made me consider such a plan” (Anderson 372). He, himself, is uninformed. Finally, there is also greater discussion about whether or not Bilbo belongs on such a quest. Thorin says to Gandalf, “I fail to see what any hobbit, good or bad, could do that would repay me for a day’s keep, even if he could be persuaded to start” (Anderson 373). Gandalf provides some support for his arguments, but he also is unsure about his reasoning beyond, “This queer notion of mine was not a joke, it was right” (Anderson 374). The answer is less confident than the book, which places complete faith in Gandalf’s prophetic insight, while “The Quest of Erebor” reveals how little Gandalf knew at the time.

Conclusion

The inclusion of the events that occur and are discussed in “The Quest of Erebor” in The Hobbit film series alter the story enough that it is hardly justifiable to name the series after the book. They become a Lord of the Rings prequel, emphasizing the warriors and wizards instead of telling the story of an ordinary person on a quest that draws out his great courage.  I don’t know where Tauriel came from, though. She wasn’t in “The Quest of Erebor” either.

C8lin

Anderson, Douglas A, ed. The Annotated Hobbit. By J. R. R. Tolkien. Revised and Expanded
          Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. Print.

Olsen, Corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. New York: Mariner Books, 2013. Print. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Potency of the Words and the Wonder of the Things: A Review of His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty’s Dragon, written by Naomi Novik and published in 2006, is an extremely satisfying read about a ship’s captain Will Laurence who serves in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars until he captures an enemy ship carrying precious cargo: a rare dragon egg. As a result, he must leave his position—in both the navy and society—to join the Aerial Corps. He forms an unexpected bond with the young dragon Temeraire, and the two must work together and with their new comrades to battle Napoleon’s dragon-borne forces and defend Britain.

Jane Austen and Christopher Paolini

I was mildly concerned when I saw a Time review quoted on the back of the book, “like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragon’s Christopher Paolini,” but I needn’t have worried. The work was striking and imaginative. The reference to Paolini seems to have been born simply from the story’s inclusion of dragons as characters. The mention of Austen, however, I found pleasantly borne out in Novik’s writing style—in the story’s pacing and emphasis on character development.

Pacing Allows Powerful Writing

The story begins slowly. Readers are introduced to Laurence just after a sea battle, instead of being dropped gracelessly in the middle of the action. Within the first couple pages I found myself thoroughly intrigued by him, and no dragon yet in sight! Novik takes her time reintroducing her readers to a history they vaguely recall as their own. She does not shy away from the hard work of creating an inner consistency of reality within her world, but seamlessly integrates history with fantasy. She not only imagines the Napoleonic Wars being fought on the backs of dragons; she puts in the labor and thought to make such a world believable. She does not seek to blind her reader with drastic actions scenes or exaggeratedly witty humor, but invests them in the vibrant emotions of her characters and the simple beauty of the world we know, as seen through dragon eyes.

“The Potency of the Words, and the Wonder of the Things”


J. R. R. Tolkien, in his article “On Fairy-stories,” wrote, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (The Monsters and the Critics 147). Naomi Novik does this with great success. The pacing of her story allows her to bring forth that potency and wonder in the things we already know and blend them with the fascination of the mythical. The result is wonderful art.

C8lin

Friday, September 4, 2015

Doctor Clara Oswald the Child: “Kill the Moon” Review

I finally got around to watching Doctor Who Season 8 on Netflix and was largely disappointed. Peter Capaldi is a wonderful Doctor; no complaints there. The “darker tone” I kept hearing about seems to be largely the result of the self- and moral questioning the Doctor undergoes, as the episodes themselves cannot be strictly interpreted as darker than anything from Season 1. However, there were several cop-out plots, such as “Listen,” which can be boiled down to “Here is A Noise. It might only be the pipes rattling or it might be Something. Oh, it was just the pipes rattling, but didn’t you have goosebumps for a few minutes!” My largest beef with the season, though, was its closer (I would say misplaced) focus on the companion Clara.

The Girl Who Lies

Clara is not the impossible girl she was in Season 7, and Season 8 seems to be about establishing who she is now. The conclusion I, as an audience member, came to was that Clara Oswald is a liar. She lies to the Doctor, to her boyfriend Mr. Pink (who, on a side note, is quite possibly the best male character we’ve ever seen on Doctor Who, and who must, as consequence, die), and to just about everyone, which makes it terribly amusing in “Mummy on the Orient Express” when she gets upset that the Doctor asked her to lie for him. As a result, she cannot even trust the Doctor (we all know he isn’t always completely truthful either), and when he asks her if she thinks he is lying, all she can answer is, “I don’t know; I don’t know” (Kill the Moon).

Irrational Behavior

She also becomes irrationally angry with the Doctor, cannot be reasoned with, and inexplicably considers herself to be in a position to correct his behavior. Despite the numerous examples of the Doctor’s authority, Clara calls herself his teacher and challenges him heavily at the end of “Kill the Moon.” In this episode, they discovered that the moon is actually an egg, and the creature within is hatching. This is causing havoc on earth, and the ultimatum “the human race or an innocent life” is levied. The Doctor leaves the humans to make this decision on their own, saying that they have all the same information that he does, and that the decision will affect them and their future, so they should be responsible for it.

After all is said and done, the conflict ended in a pro-life resolution, the self-important Clara lashes out with such rude statements as, “Tell me what you knew or else I’ll smack you so hard you’ll regenerate,” and, “You know what, shut up. I am so sick of listening to you!”

The Doctor tries to explain, “Essentially what I knew was that you would always make the best choice. I have faith that you would always make the right choice.”

“It was cheap,” Clara responds. “It was pathetic. No, no, no, it was patronizing. That was you patting us on the back saying, ‘Oh, you’re old enough to go to the shops yourself now, go on, toddle along.’” As if the process of growing up and being guided into larger responsibilities was something by which she ought to be offended.

Childishness 

The Doctor’s attempt to justify himself, “No, that was me allowing you to make a choice about your own future; that was me respecting you,” is met with manipulative tears. The Doctor is obviously shocked and confused. At this point, as an audience member, I identified strongly with him. Isn’t the companion supposed to be the “reader surrogate” for this show? Isn’t that why we haven’t had any interesting people from other time periods as companions since Classic Who? Because we won’t identify with them?

Clara tells the Doctor, “Respected is not how I feel,” and proceeds to blame him for her emotions: fear and self-doubt. She rails against being treated like a child, but cannot behave like one to communicate how she feels or understand for herself why she feels that way. She “almost chose wrong.” That is not the Doctor’s fault, but something over which she needs to do her own soul searching. Shouldering difficult decisions and accepting the consequences of those decisions is what being an adult means.

As the season progresses, Clara continues to avoid responsibility. When she realizes that she doesn’t really want to quit traveling with the Doctor, she never apologizes for her behavior or further discusses with the Doctor how she obviously hurt him with her words.


I lost all respect I had for Clara Oswald in this season. I hope that her behavior is not a reflection of our culture—that the writers did not think that audiences would identify with her in this situation. Clara is not our Doctor.

C8lin

Monday, August 31, 2015

"If You Like Tolkien, You'll Like This Article": A Venting of Frustration


One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase on the backs of numerous books, “If you like Tolkien, you’ll like this book.” This is the. laziest. advertising. For one, everyone likes Tolkien, and if you don’t, you haven’t tried hard enough. Two: this tells me nothing.

Saying “If you like Tolkien, you’ll like this book” is like saying “If you like Shakespeare, you’ll like slam poetry” or even “you’ll like e. e . cummings.” I hope we’ve all suffered through enough high school English to know that these aren’t even comparable.

There are three big problems with the claim:

1.  Tolkien wrote a lot.

Tolkien wrote more than fantasy novels. The Hobbit, LOTR, Silmarillion, Roverandom, Farmer Giles of Ham. He worked on the Oxford English Dictionary and compiled his own translation of Beowulf. This is widely known. To which of these genres are you comparing your book when you tell me I will like it?

2. Tolkien’s work encompasses many aspects of good literature.

Tolkien’s books contain literary, historical, linguistical, thematic, characteristic, academic, poetic and prosaic, plot weaving, setting, and theological complexities. Thousands of articles exist discussing them. Exactly which of these will I be seeing in your paperback fantasy?

3. Tolkien was a genius.

Your claim that your book is “reminiscent of Tolkien” is a tad egotistical. The man was a genius. He is referred to as the Father of Modern Fantasy! Like everyone else granted the patriarchal title, he changed the game. Your book is reminiscent of him by the mere existence of the genre. If you are claiming that this book, like Tolkien’s, will change what fantasy means, then bring it on!


If not…if what you meant was “If you like Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien, then you’ll like this book”…well, now I get it.

C8lin

Monday, May 4, 2015

Women and the Devil: the Misogynistic Depiction of Women in Joe Hill's Novel Horns

WARNING: Spoilers and Strong Language

I recently spent a day captivated by Joe Hill’s novel Horns published in 2010 and made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliff in 2013. It was one of those stories you pick up to kill time on a Saturday and then can’t put down. As a supernatural thriller, Horns establishes Hill as a great novelist, and emphasizes that his debut novel Heart-Shaped Box was not just a lucky break or a one-hit wonder.

At the beginning of the book, the main character Ig is ostracized from his community for the rape and murder of his girlfriend Merrin—of which he has not been convicted and insists he is innocent. He wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery about which he remembers nothing and finds a pair of devil horns growing out of his head. These horns compel others to confess their darkest sins or wishes to Ig, and he resolves to use them to find his girlfriend’s killer. The story is a richly nuanced balance between the horrors of the supernatural and of the all-too-possible, written with a tone of dry humor that prods the reader to self-reflection. Altogether a very good read.

However, when I put the book down at 4 o’clock Sunday morning, I found myself disappointed. I originally picked up the book because it was recommended to me as an enlightened take on dark fantasy—especially Hill’s ambitious depiction of rape and the female victim. While I’ll grant that the author’s portrayal of the rape was courageous, his depiction of women in general was anything but enlightened. In fact, it fell into the genre’s classic tropes of emphasizing relationships between men as most important, objectifying and over-sexualizing women, and characterizing women as those who ascribe to patriarchal roles and those who do not.

Ambitious Depiction of Rape

Hill did not pull any punches when it came to describing the horror that Merrin experienced. While the story at that point is delivered by her assailant, Merrin is unmistakably portrayed as a victim. The rape is violent and clearly gendered—an act of revenge and punishment carried out graphically from the perpetrator’s twisted point of view. Here Hill demonstrates a mastery of character development. The perpetrator has convinced himself that Merrin was a willing participant, and though the event takes place from his perspective, the reader knows that he is wrong. Merrin is portrayed in the victim’s conundrum: her every action was interpreted as an invitation and her rejection when she realizes the misunderstanding is a betrayal and an affront. She has no good options.

Hill does not shy away from the horror of rape either the act itself or the aftermath that the entire community experiences. Where he falls short is in his less than admirable treatment of women in the rest of the novel.

Relationships between Men Are Most Important

In Horns, there are three view-point characters, all male: Ig, his brother Terry, and the rapist (SPOILER ALERT) and previously Ig’s best friend Lee. The relationships between these three, especially the relationship between Ig and Lee, are given an importance that out-weighs even Ig’s relationship with Merrin. After Lee (as Ig believes) saves Ig’s life, Hill describes them and their relationship as “marked as special, stars in their own movie, which made the rest of them extras, or supporting cast at best” (81). The relationships between the male characters in Horns are given the most importance, making male relationships with women, such as Ig’s relationship with Merrin, of secondary importance. There are no relationships between women at all.

However, the problem here is not so much that all three view-point characters are male, or that male relationships are the most significant, but that the rape is hardly about Merrin at all. In fact, the rape is really about the relationship between the rapist and Ig, to whom Merrin belonged. When Lee is the view point character, this idea that the relationship between Ig and Lee is more important than Merrin becomes clearer when Hill writes, “All Lee could think was that on some level Ig held on to her out of a perverse desire to hold her over Lee” (250). Lee is not the only one who perceives Ig’s relationship with Merrin relative to himself, however. When Lee is in the hospital after trying to blow up a car with a cherry bomb, Ig thinks, “They had traded—the cherry bomb for her [Merrin]. It would be awful to bring her with him. It would be like rubbing it in” (125). Later, Lee talks about Glenna (Ig’s girlfriend after Merrin died):

“When we walked out of the Station House Tavern together, she was really drunk, and she was going to let me give her a ride home, and I was thinking I could drive her out here instead and fuck her in the fat tits and then beat her head in and leave her. That would’ve been on you, too. Ig Perrish strikes again, kills another girlfriend.” (225)
Lee’s actions towards both Merrin and Glenna are firmly related to his relationship, not with either of them, but with Ig. As a result, Ig, then, is responsible for taking revenge, not for Merrin as he so loftily seems to believe, but for himself. The story isn’t about bringing Merrin’s killer to justice; it is about countering the affront Ig felt when something that belonged to him was defaced.

Objectification and Over-sexualization of Women

Throughout Horns, Merrin is linked with and represented by the gold cross she wears around her neck. In the beginning, when Ig gives Lee cross to fix, he believes that he has given Merrin herself, “given her away like a baseball card or a CD” (98). Later when he trades Lee a cherry bomb for the cross, Ig and Lee both believe that he has traded for Merrin.  When she deduces this, she is offended and denies it, but this does not cease the boys’ association of her with the object. After her death, Lee possesses the cross and believes, “For a brief time, when he was sixteen, she had been his by right. For a few days, he had worn Merrin’s cross around his neck, and when he sometimes pressed that cross to his lips, he could imagine he was kissing it while she wore it about her throat—the cross and nothing else” (251).

It is not just these obvious links between Merrin and a particular object, however. Throughout the novel, the audience is encouraged to see women as sexual objects. Even the snakes, which are oddly attracted to Ig with the acquisition of his horns, are referred to as female and sensuous. “She seemed to squiggle about even faster almost ecstatically. It reminded him of sperm swimming up the birth canal, of loosened erotic energy” (173). Ig drapes one of the snakes around his neck, “wearing her like a loose scarf or a like an unknotted tie” (217). This is a significant link between these snakes being referred to as female and then as objects. The objectification is not limited to women for whom the male characters have sexual desire, but extends to all females in the story.

Sex and desires towards women are described in detail, crudely, and without affection while other attractive qualities are downplayed. At one point, Lee says to Ig, This seems to be a running theme with your girls, Ig. Merrin, Glenna—sooner or later they all wind up on the end of my dick” (165).The female characters are treated as objects of male status. This idea of women as objects is harmful and contributes to gendered crimes against women like rape, but Hill does not acknowledge this as part of Merrin’s rape. Instead, he perpetuates and condones this kind of thinking through his writing.
Patriarchal Roles for Women
In general, women in Horns who deviate from their ascribed patriarchal role are condemned by men with contempt and punished when possible. Allie Letterworth is a woman who Ig meets in the clinic waiting room. She is depicted as an adulterer, a horrible mother. She wants to abandon her family to live with the man with whom she is sleeping: a clear violation of her role in a patriarchal society. Ig treats her with scorn and encourages the desk attendant to start a confrontation with her in the waiting room. Ig discovers that Merrin’s mother is cheating on her father with Father Mould after her daughter’s death and arranges for Merrin’s father to catch them. Ig’s grandmother Vera hates her daughter and her grandchildren, so Ig pushes her wheelchair down a hill, landing her in the hospital. Ig’s mother, under the influence of the horns, tells him, “I don’t want you to be my kid anymore” (46). Ig afterwards treats her distantly and her attempts at motherly affection with disdain. Most women in Horns are considered worthy of contempt and punishment by the men in the story as a result of betraying their roles of wife and mother.
Merrin, on the other hand, is held up as the ideal woman. Glenna describes her as “so clean and good and never made any mistakes” (175). Ig treats her reverently, almost worshipfully. She is compared to the Virgin Mary not only through the similarity of her name, but also through a small figurine Ig finds in a treehouse. He claims, “All thoughts of peace were wrapped up in her” (51). Even her claim that she wishes to break up with him so that they can sleep with other people is really a smoke screen for her true motivation. She is sick and wishes to protect him. This purer motivation preserves her purity and keeps her in her patriarchal role. As a result, the crime against her is a tragedy committed by a monster—not because rape is horrible to begin with, but because she did not deserve it.
Conclusion

Joe Hill’s willingness to depict rape so vividly without excusing it is certainly courageous. However, his depiction of women in general was anything but enlightened. Horns fell into classic tropes of emphasizing relationships between men as most important, objectifying and over-sexualizing women, and ascribing worth to women according to how well they hold up their roles as assigned by the patriarchy. These elements negate the educated depiction of the female victim and the commendable theme which juxtaposes the horrors of the supernatural against the horrors of rape.

C8lin