The Perspective of the Reader

•April 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

What is the purpose of literature? It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing. Obviously it’s there for entertainment.  To fill boring afternoons with adventures in far off (or nearby!) places. To make us laugh. To help us understand.

It can teach us. Every book, whether it’s high prose or pulp fiction teaches us. The simple act of reading words shapes our brain in some manner. Our grasp of language grows even when the author may not have such an excellent grip of his or her own. I think the most important part of literature is just how much it teaches us even when we’re not aware that we’re learning. And the most important lesson stretches far beyond the little obvious ones that we pick apart in school.

I talk about perspective a lot, mainly because I find it absolutely fascinating. I find it so fascinating because it’s something so obvious, something that authors have clearly been toying with since the beginning and yet it’s not something I recall being a main topic of discussion in school save for one or two texts. And then only in the context of the story and not in the much wider scope of how it affects the world in which we live. The society that we have formed.

Let’s look at George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. Yes, yes I know, you’re a little sick of reading about me yammering on about how amazing it is. Well I can’t help it if he happens to be the single best writer for explaining what I’m talking about. I mean, you don’t even have to read the books at this point. Watch the show. I’ve seen it. You’ll get the idea.

Anyway I’ve already talked about the shift in character perspective that I think is so brilliant. How, as you view the world and the story through the lenses of so many different people, gradually your own view becomes far less black and white. But it was actually the television adaptation the clued me into a different perspective. The show and a short article wondering if the show was racist.

My first reaction was the obvious. How can a show be racist when the races in question don’t even exist? But then I realized the issue had more to do with the stereotyping that exists in reality.

The race in question is the Drothraki, a equine-warrior people who live on the desert continent on the other side of the sea from Westeros. Physically they are a darker skinned, darker eyed, exotic looking people reminiscent of Mongolians and Asians. And, supposedly, savages. At least, in the eyes of the people of Westeros, the fair-skinned European-esque people. As my girlfriend said, “Why is it that the “savage” race has to be dark-skinned, etc?”

There are a lot of arguments that come to my mind in regards to this idea. The first being that fantasy writing often requires the author to create an entirely new world with new people, new creatures, new lands. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that even still, the authors pull from the world they know. And in our world we once considered Mongolians and darker skinned people to be savages. We once considered them to be exotic and different. And by we I’m obviously talking about people of European descent of which the author, Martin, is clearly. In our world people who come from a climate resembling Westeros have fair skin and those that live in a desert climate are darker. Of course the other argument goes that in a fantasy realm, there is nothing that says that can’t be changed.

But those aren’t arguments that I really think are worth making. My argument is that no, it’s not racist because Martin does such a damn fine job of showing how incredibly awful mankind in its entirety is. Yes, the people of Westeros see the Drothraki as savages. But we the reader and the viewer? We can see how there is so very little difference between the two cultures. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is the Westeros “civilization” that is the savage one. A culture whose king, Robert, completely disregarded the sanctity of his marriage and who fought a war because of an obsession over a woman who may not ever have been “his” and to whom he claims to have loved but to whom he could not remain faithful. A king who has allowed his people to suffer in poverty while he emptied the kingdom’s treasure into food, wine and parties.

Take the Lannister twins and their incestuous relationship and the lengths they go to hide it. Take Viserys II who is willing to marry his sister off to anyone that will give him an army. Who is physically abusive to her constantly. Take the fact that the Westeros “justice” system is based on trial by combat and how “might makes right.”

Take the supposed hero of the first book, the one whose mind we are arguably in the most, Ned Stark. A man who takes his child to watch him behead a man, telling him “The man who gives the sentence of death should wield the blade.” Noble? He kills a man who warns of danger, of horrors that he has seen. But the Stark disregards them and sees only that the man left his post. He is blinded to danger because he holds to a law that states deserters of the wall are punished by death. It is law that supposedly separates civilized humans from savages but the laws of Westeros are savage at best and cruel at their worst. Writing them down on paper in fancy lettering doesn’t make them any more civilized.

What stronger lesson is there than the idea that there is no one size fits all solution, no short cuts in thinking.

The television show has several scenes that seem to mirror one another. We see a grand welcoming feast for the King at Winterfell and we see the wedding of Khal Drogo, leader of the Drothraki and Daenerys of House Targaryen. Both are loud and boisterous with overabundance of food and wine as well as “carnal acts” displayed for all. The only difference is that no one is killed at the Winterfell shin-dig but there is no reason why someone couldn’t have been. There were weapons and alcohol thrown together. And let’s be serious; if Cersei Lannister could have done it without anyone seeing, she totally would have spilled Robert guts. And probably danced on them. How is the fact that she plots his death in secret any different than the Drothraki that spills blood out in the open?

Seeing racist tones here means you fail to judge both cultures as intended. It means you look at the Drothraki and see savages just as the people of Westeros do. It’s not Martin that gives you that view. It is you subconsciously aligning yourself with a perspective that feels most comfortable to you. And here is literature greatest lesson. It teaches us how to look beyond that which feels comfortable. To see and consider things that would have gone unnoticed had when not taken the time to sit down and focus on the words on the page. When we read, our minds slow down and we become more aware of the ideas entering our heads.

At least, we should.

For it is as the Drothraki Queen that Daenerys is given a life she never had with Viserys II. She gains a husband who treats her kindly, gently, who she comes to love, who never strikes or hurts her. Who defends her against her violent, sadistic brother. It is through her experience with this “savage” group that she becomes more than she ever probably could have become on Westeros as she is given freedom that the women of that continent are not allowed. This I think is where the first episode of the series falls short because it doesn’t do a very good job of showing Khal Drogo’s “surprising” kindness. We just get a bent over fade to black that is unsettling at best and horrifying at worst. This is why people so often say, “Well, the books are much better.” Because they aren’t forced to take such visual short cuts that can greatly change the meaning of a scene.

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Epic Literature’s guide to meeting new people: Part 2

•January 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Because there always has to be a boy, doesn’t there?

The epic is somewhat dangerous for men as well.

 

Epic Literature’s guide to meeting new people

•January 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Epic Literature, those wonderful grail stories in particular, has taught me many things. And the most important of those things is how to recognize, understand, and interact with different types of people.

I believe this is best demonstrated via a visual aid.

Understanding Women

Seriously. There are no calm, not-in-peril women in these things.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

•January 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I spoke about this trilogy earlier when discussing the fine art of killing off major characters in fantasy novels and how authors usually aren’t very good at knowing when to do it. I’ve finally gotten around to finishing the last book in the trilogy and I thought that I’d go ahead and talk about it since the trilogy as a whole has a lot of really great ideas that I think Sanderson really pulled off well that ultimately make it a decent read in the end.

Let’s talk about the good things shall we?

To begin with this series has probably the most interesting take on magic that I have ever read about. When I say magic, I mean the mystical aspect that is a major part of fantasy literature. This is any kind of ability that falls outside the normal realm of what we think people can do.

In the Mistborn, magic has three subsets: allomancy, feruchemy, and hermalurgy. All three abilities revolve around metal.

Allomancy allows a person to ingest a certain metal and then “burn” it or process it internally in a way that allows them to do certain things. For instance, burning Iron lets you pull on objects and burning Steel lets you push on them. Not all metals can be burned. Individuals either can burn one metal or all of them. The ones that can burn one are call Mistings and the ones that can burn all of them are called Mistborn.

Feruchemy allows a person to use certain metals to “store” things; such as knowledge or speed or even health. How this works is that a person will give up the speed they currently have, or become slow, for a certain amount of time in order to transfer that speed into a metal that they can then draw upon at a later date. So for instance, one might spend a month sick so that if they’re stabbed in the gut, they can instantly heal the injury by drawing on the stored health in the metal.

Hermalurgy allows for certain abilities and traits to be stolen or passed from one individual to another via a metal spike and death. Basically one person is laid upon another person and a spike is driven through them both in order to transfer the power from one to the other. Sounds like fun right?

What I really like about this re-envisioning of magic is that Sanderson clearly did a lot of thinking about it. It’s not just about eating a bit of metal and burning it to get these amazing abilities. It’s not just a matter of pushing or pulling on whatever one wants. Sanderson goes further than that. If one pushes on something that is heavier than they are then they themselves are pushed back. The same goes for pulling. If one wants to store an ability, then they have to essentially live without it for a period of time. And the period of time is generally a lot longer than the amount of what they are storing. So being sick for a month doesn’t store up a month’s worth of health. Or, it does but that would be used very quickly in order to effectively treat a major injury. And come one, stabbing metal spikes through people in order to steal abilities? Especially when you then have to walk around with the spikes in your body in order to continue to use the ability you stole?

Don’t try this at home kids.

But what all three of these “abilities” get across is the idea of consequences and that is definitely a major theme in the Mistborn. Every action that the characters take has a very real and often times serious consequence. I’ve often been told and heard that the science fiction and fantasy genre is juvenile and merely escapist literature. A series like the Mistborn can really prove that idea wrong. Some of the choices that the main characters make are done quickly and without thinking and those are the decisions that often have the biggest consequences even though the character does them with the intent to do good.

This brings me right back to the idea of heroes, good guys and bad guys, and intention. This book very much highlights the idea that heroes are made so almost solely upon their intentions. The fact that they intend to do good overwhelms any bad things that they might do. The main “enemy” of the series is a force that is an absolute necessity. Much like the idea of life and death. Part of life is dying. Does that make dying evil or bad?

Anyway, going back to allomancy and the others. These systems make for some excellent fight scenes that I think Sanderson does really well. It’s not just a matter of cutting down a million orcs across twelve pages of text. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. No offense R.A. Salvatore!) But it institutes a measure of strategy that is very easy and enjoyable to follow.

Some places where I think Sanderson falls down happens with the characters. Some of them are so tedious that I just want to reach into the book and slap them upside the head. I understand having some frustration with characters; often times they’re growing and learning through their journey across the pages. But man some of the characters in the Mistborn just take forever to learn their lessons. For instance, Elend. I mean, I know the guy is supposed to be all noble thinking and stuff but geez he just remains woefully ignorant of how people are. He’s constantly surprised when people betray or seize power or refuse help or flatly deny what’s right in front of their faces. And Vin. How many times does she have to fall for the same trick before she starts to pick up on it?

You know, this is a cast of characters that really could have benefited from the Assassin’s Creed motto: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

I also think that he tried to cram a little too much into the very last part of the third book, The Hero of Ages. There were suddenly a lot of strings to pull together and I think he did a good job of explaining everything; there was just a lot to explain. People were really flying across the world in ways that started making me a little dizzy.

This is just a small pet peeve of mine but I always dislike it when every other person in the world besides the main group of characters seems to be total . . . well, jerks. I mean no one else in all of the world picked up on the fact that the world was teetering on the brink of destruction and wanted to do something about it? Seriously, every time you turn around in these books, some greedy bastard is trying to seize power with apparently no regard for the fact that the planet is ripping apart at the seams.

In the end, I’d definitely say to read this trilogy. The first book, Mistborn: the Final Empire is by far the best of the three. You’ll probably struggle through the second book, The Well of Ascension. Like I’ve said before, Vin is unfortunately a bit of a step down from Kelsier. The final book, The Hero of Ages is certainly worth sticking around for.

Elementary.

•September 9, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“Because we always agree with his judgments in those instances, his willingness to become the final arbiter of justice makes him heroic.” [i]

I don’t typically read the introductions to books. Mostly I’m in too much of a hurry to read the actual story and honestly I don’t usually care what other people think of the author, his writing, and the time period in which it all took place. However, after perusing through the Wikipedia page (for some reason I can’t recall), watching the excellent movie with Robert Downey, Jr., and being interested enough to buy a two volume collection of stories, I found myself reading the Introduction to the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes. Prior to that I’d never read any of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though I was familiar with The Hound of the Baskervilles from summer reading lists. I may have read part of it in grade school also.

Beside the point.

I don’t know why I started reading the Introduction and I recall that I very nearly skipped over it after the first paragraph or so but for whatever reason I kept going. Until I reached the sentence that occurs at the beginning of this post. At which point the proverbial light bulb went off, I stopped reading, set the book down and said “Exactly.” I wish I read this sentence when I was laboring on my senior project in college, though I’d probably be hard pressed to label Sherlock Holmes as a fantasy genre but I’m clever so maybe I would have thought of something. Because it exactly expresses what I spent over forty-five pages trying to work out. If you’ll recall it from an earlier post, it’s “What makes a hero, a hero?”

And the answer is: us. The reader is what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain. I struggled with this question quite a bit and my previous answer was that it was the author who made this choice by giving us the perspective with which the story is viewed. And I still believe that plays a large role in deciding who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. But my sudden eureka thought is that the reader still ultimately has the final choice in whether or not they believe what the author presents. The text preceding the sentence I’ve quote is:

It is not the law that he upholds, but his own conception of justice. Several times he substitutes this conception for the letter of British law by letting someone go who is guilty of a crime.

Him of course referring to Sherlock Holmes. What happens then if we were not to agree with Holmes’ judgments? If our moral compasses did not point in the same direction? I’d say the confliction causes us to reflect negatively upon the character. But how many times does this have to happen before the character loses his heroic sheen? For instance, there are several times that Holmes allows a person to go free who has killed another person to go free. It happens in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” he also suppresses knowledge of a killing because he deems it justified. In my own opinion, murder is murder and so both instances are unpleasant to me. But neither is enough to reverse my opinion of Holmes as a heroic character. His good actions outweigh his not so good actions, which is uncomfortably close to the idea that the end justifies the means.

I’ve started to notice an interesting aspect of heroes, especially the more modern variety, though it is certainly true to some extent of our ancient heroes as well. And that is of the villain as hero. In older texts this presents more in the idea of a man who reforms himself. As in Bors being a reformed Christian. But more and more we see instances of characters we would consider to be actual villains save for their motives are in some ways altruistic. And sometimes not even altruistic. Sometimes we just like villains because they’re charming bastards.

Some examples: Jaime Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, Durzo Blint from the horrible Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks (no, it really is terrible. Don’t try and convince me), Kelsier from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Dexter Morgan from the TV show/books Dexter, hell even the new Sherlock Holmes is a “highly functioning sociopath.” Straight up goodness is apparently boring. Maybe it’s always been boring. After all, Odysseus isn’t the greatest guy in the world, nor is Lancelot, or even David from the Bible. They’ve all got wickedness in them that we excuse. It’s interesting though that it’s becoming more and more obvious and common for evil to be repackaged as good. I wonder if it’s because we’re interested in stories of redemption or if our opinions of what is evil are changing. Or is it the idea of justice that is fluctuating? What is justice? An eye for an eye? Righting a wrong? Balancing power? Where does justice come from?

I wonder if that is a question that literature can answer.


[i] Freeman, Kyle. Introduction. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1. By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 2003. Barnes and Nobles Books. xxx. Print.

Arthur vs. Galahad

•July 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Lately I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. Well, not really a lot but whenever I briefly think about writing and reading and all that good stuff. It’s been a busy last few months.

Any way, it occurred to me, I think as I was watching that Merlin special with Sam Neil as Merlin, that I don’t really understand why Arthur is such a huge figure. I can’t claim to have read every single Grail story but I seem to recall that in the ones I have read that Arthur doesn’t really do all that much beyond sit at a round table and tell knights to go off and find the Grail. I mean sure, in The Once Future King we get his whole life story but I don’t recall that happening in the older texts. Mostly we read about his knights and their quests. The notable knights being Percival, Gawain, Lancelot, Bors, and Galahad. If you ask the average person today who Galahad is I have feeling you’re probably going to get a rather blank stare. But Galahad is supposed to be THE knight. The perfect knight. The desired knight as he called in one of the texts.

So why the hell do we care about Arthur? Arthur doesn’t get to see the grail. In fact, you can argue that Arthur ultimately destroys the great kingdom during the whole Lancelot / Guinevere thing. (Now that I think about it, I seem to recall Arthur being a bit more proactive in the High History of the Holy Grail. Of course, I no longer have a copy of that bad boy. Probably should look about picking one up.)

Do we fixate on Arthur because he has Excalibur and magic swords are awesome? Well technically speaking, Galahad also has a pretty bad ass sword. In fact, he ends up with two swords that supposedly no one else is able to wield. (Though when he gets the newer of the two swords, he lets Percival talk the old one which has never made much sense to me. If he’s the only one that can wield it, how come Percival can all of a sudden? Is it just a matter of Galahad giving his permission? And what does it mean for Percival to be the one to get that permission? Of the three knights that get to see the Holy Grail, I believe it’s Percival who manages to remain pure. Bors, as I recall, is a reformed Christian. Clearly there is a hierarchy to “goodness”. Because Bors is a “good” knight, he just isn’t as “good” as Percival who isn’t as “good” as Galahad.

So what is the purpose of Arthur? If Galahad is the “desired” knight but Percival and Bors are still acceptable, where does that leave Arthur? Arthur is flawed, unable to see God and the Grail. (Similar to Lancelot. But even Lancelot gets to be on the other side of a wall of the Grail. What does Arthur get? Just the news that it’s been found? Hmm. He might be dead by the time it’s found actually. Clearly I have a lot of re-reading to do if I want to solve this question I’ve poised to myself.)

I’m just thinking that Arthur is in many ways billed as the hero of these stories when in fact he very rarely has anything to do with them. I’m trying to think if there’s been any modern day fantasy writers who take a similar approach. I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But I feel like there are incidents of characters we think of as heroes that turn out to be less than so. It’d be nice if I could remember those incidents. They elude me at the moment. Well, we’ll consider this brainstorming and leave the research to offline.

Without research and just taking into account the readers, I think part of the reason we “choose” Arthur over Galahad is because Galahad is boring. Galahad is perfect. We KNOW he’s going to succeed. He can’t fail because otherwise he wouldn’t be the perfect knight. His stories then are less about confliction and danger and adventure and more about pious righteousness. This is what you get when you are perfect. Everything works out. Which is nice as an idea but terribly boring as a story. Why is Lancelot such a well-known character? Because everyone can relate to him. They relate to his love or lust of Guinevere, of his pride at being the strongest and best of the knights, his frustration and despair when that prowess is taken away from him. That to me is a major reason why we choose Arthur over Galahad. Arthur is the flawed kingdom, the kingdom of Earth. Of mortals. Galahad is the kingdom of Heaven. Of what we wish we could achieve but will never be able to because we are not perfect. Because we will make wrong decisions, take wrong roads, trust the wrong things. You read Galahad’s tale and there is nothing to learn from it. What lesson is there beyond “be perfect and paradise is yours?” What kind of lesson is that?

So why did the writers write him like that? There must have been a reason. Is he really there to show us that while we cannot attain his status of perfection, while we ourselves cannot be God’s chosen, we can recognize our faults like the ones we see in the other knights?

Ultimately, what does any of this have to do with fantasy writing? Well you should consider these texts to be granddaddies to our current incarnations of Lord of the Rings, Song of Fire and Ice, even the never ending saga of Drizzt Do’Urden. Generally when you hear people talk about the fantasy genre it’s regarded as somehow low-brow or childish as if the inclusion of the fantastical somehow negates the literary importance or intelligence of a story. (If you’ve noticed, I’ve written about this a few times now. Must be a chip on my shoulder.)

Stories are meant to make us think. And we can choose to think about anything in regards to them. So make your readers think.

David Drake and the Endless Coincidence

•April 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I just finished reading David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series, a series that I actually began back in high school and thought I had finished after reading three books. It wasn’t until recently that I realized more books had been published after the last I had finished and that in fact there were nine titles in the series. I picked up the first book again because I remembered mostly enjoying it, having only a few major frustrations, one of them having to do with Ilna, a character I’ve mentioned before. And that frustration being that it seemed like the author enjoyed slapping her in the face more so then anyone else.

And so I was pleasantly surprised to find the books to be very different than I remembered. (I wonder how much of that has to do with my faulty memory and how much it has to do with me being older and having an entirely different view of literature.) Ilna still remains the character that seems to have the most, to put it bluntly, shit dumped on her but I found her personality to be among the best I’ve ever read. Allow me to give you a glimpse into her personality:

Ilna gave a tight smile: the trees appeared to be randomly spaced, but the formed a pattern so subtle that she would’ve said no one but herself or her brother Cashel could see it.

Almost no one, perhaps. Ilna didn’t like pride, in herself least of all, and she especially disliked learning that she’d arrogantly assumed she was uniquely skilled. She smiled a little wider: since she disliked herself at most times, having a particular cause didn’t make a great deal of difference.

-page 4 The Mirror of Worlds David Drake 2007

What I like most about David Drake is what inspired the title to this post and what the majority of writing teachers across the country would probably shrink in horror from. Drake has four main characters: Garric, Sharina, Cashel, and Ilna. And each book inevitably begins with these four characters being separated in some manner. Each proceeds to have his or her own adventure that finally, surprise, leads them back together to face the final bad guy, a villain that ultimately would not have been able to have been defeated unless each had successfully managed the previously mentioned adventures. This means that one character always ends up walking through just the right inter-planer door just in time to save another.

Some people, the writing teachers mostly, would say this is an example of poor writing. Relying too heavily on coincidence. But the reason I find it so fascinating and entertaining is because it’s something that lies at the very core of fantasy writing. The idea that there IS a reason behind everything. And usually that reason is a god. Or some other powerful cognitive force. (Other than, say, a black hole, which, unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t really think that much about destroying part of the universe. It just does it.)

Anyway, in the beginning, Drake backlights this idea with the idea of two unknown forces playing a game that seems to resemble chess. Personally, I never tire of this metaphor but I’m sure some people do. (To hell with you.) The problem with it comes with the fact that it basically gets lost at some point in the series. It’s almost as if Drake forgets about it. I was disappointed by this because I was interested in knowing more about the forces playing (though we do discover the identity of one) but even more so I was interested in the chess board itself. It seems as if pieces appear and disappear on the board according the events that occur in the world. But it’s pretty much gone by perhaps the fourth book?

The other thing that disappointed me some was the ending of the series. And I shouldn’t say disappoint so much as confused. I figured pretty early on that one of the books many characters was going to end up a god of something and was happy to see that happen. But two others transformed in ways that I did not expect and also did not understand. It’s almost as if Drake was thinking, “Well, I transformed one of them. That was fun! I should transform a couple more!” And then he got bored with it and nobody else got anything.

Still, I read the series straight through pretty much every second I had free. Well, except for the second to last book. That book kind of made me go, “bwah?” But by the time I got through it, I was interested again enough to burn through the last book.

Oh, I nearly forgot my second favorite thing about this series. It seems like in most books, bad things only happen to the good characters. Or weak characters.  David Drake flips this on its head and most of the time it’s the all powerful baddies that end up on the wrong side of the coin. Particularly in regards to magic. Magic in this series is divided between wizards who are powerful and wizards who are knowledgeable and very, very rarely are the two present in one individual. In fact, the main wizard who treks along with Garric, Sharina, Cashel, and Ilna is a seventy something woman from a completely different time period whose knowledge of the forces of magic is vast but whose actual power is very limited. Still, she’s able to do much with often a miniscule shift in those forces. Much like in an art like fencing, where a small movement can make a big opening.

Though, it has to be said, that that brings up another disappointment. In the end, Drake seems to drop the idea of knowledge and power being separate and combines them. I find this to be less effective and less interesting.

Still, I think this a great series and I use it as an example to underscore one of the points I was making in my last post. Fantasy writing’s major purpose, its major structure, is that it has structure. Beneath the wild and fantastical beasts and creatures, is reason and answers for everything. Hmmm. That kind of sounds like a rule.

The next one perhaps?