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