Archive for ‘samuel johnson couldn’t ramble like I ramble’

November 7, 2011

Further thoughts on Snuff

[For a far more lucid account of many of the things that bothered me about this book, see Abigail Nussbaum's piece here.]

I posted a review here a few days ago, but it had a limited word count and was for a general audience. But there were other aspects of Pratchett’s new book that I wanted to discuss. Obviously there will be many, many spoilers. I’m dividing things into subheadings to keep it all coherent.

 

Race

There’s a thing quite a lot of SFF has done – discuss race relations using actual different races (dwarves, trolls,etc) as opposed to merely people with different coloured skin. One of the problems with this way of talking about race is that it has tended to make the various other races represent people of colour (or any other group that is non-mainstream, as ridiculous as it seems to talk of nonwhite people being non-mainstream when they surely make up most of the world’s population) whereas the ‘humans’ have tended to represent white westerners. A recent example of this for me was China Miéville’s Embassytown, which I read as partly based on British colonialism in Asia.

In the Discworld no race is an obvious stand in for a real world community – there are obvious similarities, but the roles which particular races assume may shift with each plot, and (sometimes) with whichever classic fantasy trope Pratchett is currently playing with. And there are sympathetic, real characters from most races. Yet I think there’s still a tendency to centre the human. Human characters on the Disc can be marginalised (see werewolves, vampires, zombies) but in a generalised manner that shows the dynamics of the process more than it references any realworld racial group. In Snuff, the victims of the slave trade are goblins, the people doing the trading humans. But also in Snuff, I think there are signs that Pratchett is acknowledging this. The quoted bit below is from a section in which Carrot and Angua interview an elderly goblin lady.

[Angua] waited with Billy Slick while Carrot went on the errand, and for something to say, she said, ‘Billy Slick doesn’t sound much like a goblin name?’ Billy made a face. ‘Too right! Granny calls me Of the Wind Regretfully Blown. What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?’ He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls … the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress.

 

Edit: I’m now wondering how it would be to Unseen Academicals in the light of this book. With UA’s focus on racism in other books (the main character is an orc) rather than – if such a distinction can be made at all – real-world racism.

 

Slavery

I’ve touched on this in my official review: the Discworld books may deal with some very serious subject matter, but they generally end nicely. Sometimes characters have died and the ending is bittersweet, but it’s never entirely bitter. On my twitter feed a couple of weeks ago Alex Keller said  he was in the mood for Pratchett because he needed a “human decency boost” and I felt that was an apt description of how I feel reading these books.

So how do you fit the history of slavery into that framework? On the front inner flap of Snuff (I have the HB) we have “They say that in the end all sins are forgiven. But not quite all…” But how far can you approach something as vast and awful as the slave trade and tie it up neatly into a happy ending?

One of the things I think the text does to deal with this is to have a comparatively minor character discover what is happening. It’s not nice – there are piles of bones of corpses and tortured goblins on the verge of death. But Wee Mad Arthur has never been given a point of view in the earlier books – we don’t know what the inside of his head looks like and we don’t learn much about it here. As a result we’re distanced in ways we would not have been had a character with more depth – Angua or Cheery, or even Colon – seen what Wee Mad Arthur sees.

There’s also the fact that this book is comparatively muted, and that is despite the poo jokes. Of the characters that tend to provide the comic relief, Nobby is barely present until the end and Colon is (for a major chunk of the plot) unconscious. There are even less footnotes than usual.

But at the end the book seems completely at a loss. You have one evil instigator (who is offstage throughout) transported to Australia. The others involved get away all but completely – which may be an accurate depiction of history. But there’s an incredibly ill-judged moment when Colonel Makepeace, whose wife is one of the major figures behind the crime, pleads for her to be treated leniently because while he fully agrees that the slave trade was wrong and needed to be stopped, his wife “is a rather foolish woman”, “I do love her” and “I’m very sorry you’ve been troubled”. And this is framed in terms that suggest the reader is intended to feel sorry for him.

 

Children’s Books and Evidence

Snuff came out a few days after my birthday. One of the presents I received this year was this Dutch edition of The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business - for those unfamiliar with the book, a mole discovers that someone has defaecated on his head and sets out to find the animal responsible.

Yes there is a reason I have the Dutch edition. No, I don't speak the language.

In Snuff, Vimes’ son Sam is immersed in the works of Miss Felicity Beedle, an author of children’s books whose most recent work is titled The World of Poo (Miss Beedle had previously written Wee). Inspired, young Sam begins to collect samples of the different sorts of poo available (since the Ramkin country estate comes attached to a farm there is much variety) and to observe and record the differences between them.

Reading these two books within the same week brought home for me how forensic in nature many books for very young children are. In Thud!, young Sam’s favourite book had been Where’s My Cow? In this the narrator (who had lost his cow) walks around wondering if various animals are the eponymous cow and eliminates them from suspicion on the evidence of the sounds they make. (“Where is my cow? Is that my cow? It goes “Hruuugh!” It is a hippopotamus. That’s not my cow!”)    The urban equivalent made up by Vimes follows the same principle. The little mole in the book above visits each of his suspects, eliminating them only when they prove their innocence by showing that their faeces is completely different from the sort he has found. (Eventually he calls in the experts – flies – and finds that the dog is the culprit). There’s nothing particularly exciting or revolutionary about the revelation that gathering evidence and learning to make deductions about things are one of the major ways in which we learn about the world. Or that it makes sense that they should therefore be a big part of children’s books. But it pleased me anyway; particularly coming within the context of a detective novel.

 

The Summoning Dark/Landscapes of the mind

One of the major principles upon which the Discworld functions is the power of story – Narrativium. Most books in the series deal with this idea to some extent. Naturally, then, the insides of people’s heads are quite potent. Of late this has had one slightly annoying consequence, which is that every other story now ends with the protagonist playing out his or her mental battles on a literalised metaphorical landscape.

Thud! had something of this sort. In the course of his investigation Vimes becomes possessed? infected? by The Summoning Dark, a powerful, ancient entity from Dwarf lore. This leads to multiple mini-scenes in which the inside of Vimes’ mind is a city, the Summoning Dark is trying to get into the houses and a watchman (because Vimes is the sort of man who will keep a watch on the inside of his own head) follows it through the streets and prevents it from doing so.

Vimes and The Summoning Dark end Thud! on terms of mutual respect, and there’s an understanding that the thing will never completely leave. In Snuff, Vimes seems to have completely made peace with the presence of a demonic entity in his brain, and The Summoning Dark is now being used to give him superpowers – night vision and new linguistic skills. It’s a bit silly. But it also means that the internal/supernatural aspects of the book are more integrated within the action in the physical world. I’ll be interested to see whether Pratchett will find ways to avoid these mental landscape scenes in future books as well.

 

Sybil

Vimes’ wife’s characterisation is a bit patchy through the series. We know that she’s rich and aristocratic (“as highly bred as a hilltop bakery”) and kind. We also know that upon their marriage she signs all her property over to her husband. She’s a play on the (often “horsy”) upper-class woman who breeds dogs – or in this case dragons – and is forceful, hearty, not physically very attractive. She is big, fat, has a large chest, is rather pushy. In Guards! Guards! there’s a sense that Vimes has been swept into their relationship by her sheer momentum. In later books we do see comfortable domestic scenes and can assume (from her pregnancy and the birth of their son) that they have sex. There’s als0 an occasional return to the henpecked husband joke – notably Sybil’s attempts to improve Vimes’ diet.

Which is why I am on the whole delighted by her character in Snuff. We have the assertion that Sam ‘worships’ his wife, we have (Pratchett doesn’t do graphic sex scenes but still) bathtub sex. We have respectable flaws – Sybil’s heritage allows her to be less unsure about her identity than her husband, but her privilege blinds her to things as well. And her real involvement in the goblin cause is triggered by discovering that they can make great music – it’s the sort of petty, selfish, human thing that the text doesn’t draw attention to, but it’s there.

July 21, 2011

Harry Potter and the burnt banker

I watched the final Harry Potter film on Friday. The 3-D didn’t exactly help my viewing experience, but I enjoyed it (read: cried all through the second half). A few days later I’m not particularly impressed with what I remember of it, barring a couple of scenes.

 

Yet there were a couple of things that managed to annoy me even while I was watching and turning into an emotional wreck.

 

I’ve written before on this blog about my problem with Rowling’s house elves, and my current grudge is in part a rehashing of that argument. From the first book we’re aware that the wizarding world isn’t a particularly egalitarian one, with many pureblood wizards looking down upon those who have muggle parentage. We’re also frequently reminded that there are other sentient magical creatures in this world, and that they receive even worse treatment at the hands of wizards. The centaurs are angry; the house elves are terrified to be anything other than docile servants; the goblins are suspicious because the wizards have historically given them plenty of reason to be. The giants are an extreme case – while in most instances of prejudice in the books it is the racist, pro-Voldemort faction who are the worst offenders, years of wizard hostility have meant that the giants are willing to side with the Death Eaters against the larger wizarding community.

 

This inequality is something we’re reminded of frequently in the books.  So you have scenes like the one in the fifth book with the fountain in the Ministry of Magic (I’ve quoted that passage in the post I linked to, so I’m not going to do it again here). It’s clear in Order of the Phoenix and the earliest scenes of Deathly Hallows that in the face of danger a number of groups within the magical community will find themselves being victimised. And (understandably) the books generally depict this as a bad thing. Yet while this is something that is brought up in all of the books, plotwise the larger Good vs Evil theme usually takes precedence over reminding us that the Good side isn’t actually that good.

 

So what happens with the goblins in Deathly Hallows (the book)? Harry enlists the help of Griphook the goblin in breaking into a vault in Gringotts bank. Griphook agrees to work with Harry because he considers him an unusual wizard (since Harry has taken the trouble to dig a grave for and mourn the death of a house elf). The price of Griphook’s help is the sword of Gryffindor, which by Goblin law belongs to the goblins, not Hogwarts. Harry agrees to this exchange despite believing he needs the sword to succeed in his quest;  he lies by omission, justifying this to himself by claiming that he’ll hand the sword over after Voldemort is dead.

 

This is all morally dubious, but it’s interestingly so. We’ve been told that the goblins don’t trust wizards. Here we have a wizard being thoroughly untrustworthy in his treatment of a goblin – but Harry does need the sword, and the death of Voldemort will presumably be a good thing for both communities. (There’s also the little matter of the text proving that wizarding laws of inheritance trump goblin ones – the sword will magically appear when Neville needs it – but that’s another issue).

 

In the movie, the racial tension between wizards and goblins is not explored, and nor are the reasons for it. Understandable, if annoying – the wizard-other creatures plotline has been left out of the movies in the main. What we do see in the movie is this – Harry scams the goblin into helping him and then gloats about it to Bill (I don’t remember him being this smug about it in the book, but it’s been a couple of years since I last read it). But Griphook gets the sword, cackles evilly about never having said he’d help them get out of Gringotts (which may happen in the book, but is balanced out somewhat by the commentary on Wizard-Goblin relations and Harry’s own culpability) , and abandons our heroes.

 

Meanwhile, there is another goblin present, and under an imperius (mind-controlling) curse. [Minor digression: I find it interesting that by this point in the series all of the main characters have become really skilled at imperius charms - they've been used mostly against Bad People and for survival reasons, but they're also among a set of curses considered "Unforgiveable".] Now that Griphook is gone, this goblin (smiling and waving mindlessly at them) is their way out. Just as Ron(?) has pointed this out, a dragon breathes fire at the goblin, killing him. Beat. “That’s inconvenient”.*

 

So what all this explanatory rambling comes down to is this – the Harry Potter series  frequently attempts (though often failing spectacularly) to discuss things like prejudice and power relations. The movies based on it have chosen not to focus on that aspect of things. But to deliberately play the death of a goblin for laughs, in the context of the books? Horribly, horribly off.
The other thing that annoyed me was the moment when Professor McGonagall (otherwise brilliant as ever) suggested that Filch lock all the Slytherin students in the dungeon. But I cannot blame the director for this – despite the lip service paid to not judging people by house (or type or category or race or) Rowling still feels the need to point out in the book that no Slytherins are involved in the resurrected Dumbledore’s Army.
Slytherin students are seen running around in some of the battle scenes, though. Perhaps Argus Filch had been reading the books or talking to the Sorting Hat.

 

For a nonrambly, affectionate HP critique this week you cannot do better than Sady Doyle’s piece of alt-history reviewing/reportage here.

 

*Possibly not an exact quote – it has been a few days, but I’m reasonably sure this is what was said.
April 8, 2010

Three pairs of hands and some waffling on genre. Also, Fabio.

There has been quite a bit of debate on various SFF blogs in recent months over the nature of book covers. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing because the people who have been following the discussion are all probably really sick of it by now, but briefly, some people are annoyed by the sameyness of a lot of SFF cover art at the moment, with all the hooded figures and swords and things. Which is a valid enough complaint. On the other hand, other people have pointed out, a major (perhaps the primary) function of the cover is to sell the book to as many people as possible. That means making sure that regular readers of the genre see the book and recognise it as the sort of thing they like. Those cliche elements on the cover act as useful signifiers. [I'm simplifying unfairly - if you haven't read this stuff and want to, go here, here and here].

On the whole, I’m neutral. I’d like things to be more original; then again, the fiction I read doesn’t usually have this problem – I haven’t read as much epic/ sword and sorcery fantasy in the last few years as I used to. Plus, generic covers have been useful to me as a romance reader, so I can quite well see why they would perform that function for someone who reads fantasy in the same way. So yes, cover cliches as useful signifiers of genre make sense to me.

I was very amused a couple of years ago when the good people at Sepia Mutiny came up with this hilarious Anatomy of a Genre post where they pick apart the various elements of a generic Indian Novel In America (is there a less clunky term for this category of book?) cover*. The book in question is The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi. For a more detailed pointing out of what, specifically, makes that cover so…generic, you should probably read the SM post. Or just look at the picture of the cover below, along with a couple of other books that deal with a similar theme.

Except, wait. One of these things is not like the others.

Earlier today I read about Heather Tomlinson’s Toads and Diamonds on John Scalzi’s blog. Toads and Diamonds is a retelling of a Perrault fairy tale set in India. What it is not is a generic Indian Novel in America. But would you be able to tell by the cover?

Tomlinson’s book is set in India and the publishers are justified in using an “Indian” image (however cliched) on the cover. Just as, for example, the publishers of Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia could have argued for the inclusion of a romantic image on their cover (the title is apparently a play on the Russian for “I love you”). Yet if I’d gone into a bookshop and seen this I’m pretty sure I would have been surprised and confused (and delighted!) to find Roberts’ book between the covers.


(Yellow Blue Fabio)

It’s a silly example, but that is how weird it feels to see a book from one genre with a cover that so obviously suggests it to be part of another

I have no idea whether Ms Tomlinson’s publishers purposely designed the book to look like the sort of covers above, or if it’s all a very odd coincidence. Perhaps it’ll get mis-shelved, or someone walking past the SFF section in a bookshop will do a double take and buy it and so become a hopeless fantasy addict? I do not know.

*The existence of this sort of genre raises a few other interesting questions in the context of this cover debate – I’m footnoting them because I don’t really want to make them the subject of this post. In some of the discussions around covers people brought up the issue of publishers “whitewashing” covers (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books) vs using cliches to indicate genre. (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books). To my mind the difference is obvious, yet here is a genre where the cover conventions are entirely dependent upon presenting a very specific picture of India to a mostly Western audience. You could hardly call that entirely divorced from race. Hmm.

April 5, 2010

YfLs6 & 7: Gopi Manjuri with donuts for afters.

I was lazy and failed to post the Yell for Language column last week. As a result, this week you get two whole columns on the subject of spelling.

Hurrah?

[Edited versions of the pieces below appeared in the New Indian Express today and last monday.]

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A la carte: according to a menu or list that prices items separately

Among the more fascinating sites upon which one can see the English language being used are restaurant menus and signs. Some of these are completely unrelated to the food itself – I recently visited a cafe in Pune where patrons were informed in no uncertain terms, “READING WRITING USE OF LAPTOP STRICTLY PROHIBITED”, conditions that might have led to difficulties where reading the menu and ordering food were concerned. Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote a poem based on the noticeboard at his favourite Irani cafe which had a long list of things that patrons were not supposed to do, including “No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/”. One wonders what patrons were allowed to do.

But signs and menus (or in one case, Meenu) that deal with food are far more exciting. It is amazing to note, for example, the new and wonderful forms that a basic dish like matar-paneer takes on asit travels across the country. One can sample mutter-panir, mater-panner, mottor-paneer, cheese-peas (to attract the foreign clientele, perhaps?), often within two hundred metres of each other. You could also order some toast, or “tost”, accompanied by omelette, omlet, omlit, or even crumbled eggs. Or Garlic Bread with Chesse, which is sadly less about the intellectual stimulation and more about the calories. A venue in Calcutta practically bludgeons you with the perplexing sign “CHICKEN HUNGER TASTE”. Chinese food options include chowmin, chomin, gobi manchurian, and gopi manjuree. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place which serves alcohol, you could even have a Child Bear on the side.

It’s far too easy to mock the dhabas and reasonably inexpensive restaurants though – especially since the food they serve is frequently delicious. It is far more satisfying to visit an expensive place, where the people writing the menu have attempted to make the food sound as wonderful as possible with prose that grows thicker and purpler by the moment. What you thought was a dosai is actually a golden rice pancake, crisped to perfection with coconut chutney offering a transcendent experience. On Valentine’s Day I visited a restaurant in Delhi that had hopefully marked at least half the items on its menu as having aphrodisiac properties (artichokes, who knew?). They had also written flowery and ungrammatical pieces of poetry to describe their cocktails, making me particularly keen to sample something called “First Kiss”:

Kiss is a lovely trick designed by creature to stop speech, two souls but with single thought, two heart but beats as one. Served with a slice of banana.”

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Lexicography: The editing or making of a dictionary (Merriam-Webster)

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. (Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language)

In 1746 Samuel Johnson started his project of creating a definitive English language dictionary. There had been other works before, but none of them had been particularly satisfactory, and Johnson practically had to start out from scratch. When you think about it, it’s mindboggling: that it took Johnson less than a decade to write (it was published in 1755) is amazing.
Three years later, Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was born.
Noah Webster is the “Webster” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (the “Merriam” part comes from the name of the publisher). Webster had very firm ideas about language and education – he believed that American students ought to learn from American, not British, books.
It was Webster who initiated a number of the differences between American and British spelling that we still see today – dropping the “u” from words like colour and flavour and changing “re” to “er” in centre. I do not know whether he was responsible for changing “doughnut” into “donut” (I will never accept this spelling. It is pointless and makes no sense), but he did apparently try to change “tongue” into “tung”. Fortunately it never caught on.
Webster genuinely believed – and lets face it, he had a point – that the rules of English language spelling were far too convoluted and could do with simplifying. He also seems to have wanted not only to definitely distinguish American English from British English, but to create a standardised language for Americans. In addition, he added new words that were unique to America. When Webster’s dictionary was published in 1928, it was big enough for two volumes and contained seventy thousand words – almost thirty thousand more than Dr. Johnson’s version.
What I find fascinating about Webster’s dictionary is that it was written as a means to an end – the author had these stated goals that he hoped his dictionary could achieve. Dr. Johnson occasionally stuck a few hilariously snarky opinions of his own into his dictionary definitions (see “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, or “Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman”) but there’s no sustained effort to make the reader subscribe to Dr. Johnson’s opinions – on language or anything else. Which is why, while Johnson’s dictionary is more fun to read (as far as you can call reading a dictionary fun), Webster’s is fascinating for showing clearly that even dictionaries are not ideologically innocent. And once you’ve figured that out, language becomes much more fun to play with.

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March 1, 2010

YfL2: Turnip

I have been very silly. The writers of Blackadder, could they but see this, might possibly arrange for me to be assassinated.

(An edited version appeared today in the New Indian Express education supplement. I’m educational, internet.)

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Turnip: (noun) A round root with white or cream flesh which is eaten as a vegetable and also has edible leaves.

Recently a school in California banned a book, removing all copies from its shelves. This would not be particularly unusual (most schools choose not to stock certain books) except that the book in question was hardly something most people would consider racy. It was the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary. Apparently a child had discovered the definition of “oral sex” in this dictionary, and the revelation that a book full of word definitions could potentially tell children what particular words mean was enough. Following widespread mockery the school reinstated the dictionary (though students now need written permission to consult it).

But could the revelation that students might look up certain words and phrases in the dictionary really be that much of a revelation to the school authorities? In an episode of Blackadder, Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson) and his turnip-obsessed sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) meet Dr. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first English dictionary. The following exchange takes place:

Dr. Johnson: Sir! I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!

Blackadder: I wouldn’t be too hopeful — that’s what all the other ones will be used for.

Baldrick: Sir, can I look up `turnip’?

Blackadder: `Turnip’ isn’t a rude word, Baldrick.

Baldrick: It is if you sit on one.

While it’s notable that Blackadder, the scriptwriters and the audience all take for granted that most dictionaries are going to be used to look up rude words at some point, what is far more interesting is Baldrick’s contribution to the conversation. Of the three, Baldrick evinces the most sophisticated understanding of language. He realises that meaning is to a great extent dependent on context. The dictionary definition of a turnip is functional, but in the right circumstances a turnip can be an object of desire (as it seems to be for Baldrick himself), a lifesaver (if one were starving), or the source of a great deal of pain or the reason for much cursing, if one were to sit on it. Dr. Johnson’s contribution to the English language is to give it rules; words can only mean what the dictionary says they can mean. Baldrick immediately undermines this attempt at regulation by demonstrating that it is completely inadequate.

Of the two sides, I’m inclined towards Baldrick’s, and not just because everything one hears of Dr. Johnson makes him sound like one of the most insufferable men who ever lived. But then again, without setting some rules for the language it would be complete chaos.

If Baldrick is right about language, perhaps that school in California was right to ban the dictionary. After all, in the right context every word is potentially dangerous. But when language is that unstable, maybe we need dictionaries, with their illusion of creating some sort of order. Otherwise we’d all just run away screaming and nothing would ever get said.

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June 16, 2009

Unnecessarily long and disjointed thoughts on Tolkien (part 1)

(I cannot guarantee that I will subscribe entirely to this post tomorrow)

China Mieville on Omnivoracious provides us with some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien:

For some of us, there’s always been something about this tradition–and it’s hard to put your finger on–vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were ‘as cold as their marble’.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies–Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

(Unrelated: Mieville is a Garner fan. *squee*)

A few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien’s work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And he’s right up to a point – that line from Gorbag opens up a whole new set of possibilities. I want that story, I want to know what life is like in inner city Mordor, I want to know what it means to be an orc, and ugly, and evil (but not with free will, or presumably some orcs would choose not to be evil – and if you don’t have free will can you be evil?). Tolkien chooses not to tell it.

There are other stories he chooses not to tell. The blue wizards, Alatar and Pallando – I could have done with a bit more about them. The East in general. What was happening to the less-Caucasian men while the Numenoreans were busy enacting the Atlantis myth. Haleth (who is kickass). Maybe some more actual soldiers in the war – that dead guy from Harad who Sam feels sorry for for a few minutes. He did actually start writing one story I wanted to read – “Tal-elmar”, set in Middle-earth when the Numenoreans begin to return. It is quite possible that if he’d gone on with it he’d have screwed it up and been hopelessly racist (more than the story already is, I mean) and I’d be very annoyed. It’s unfinished, though, and so certain possibilities are left open.

I actually subscribe to most criticisms of Tolkien. Including this one, also by Mieville. And bits of this one by Moorcock. And of course I did not know the man personally, have no real access to his mind, and cannot know what he was aiming for when he wrote what he wrote.

But more and more I find myself seeing him as a man who was really into structure. The Silmarillion is an obvious example of this. It’s not the history of a race, it’s a mythology. It is told in exactly the way such a mythology would be told. The minute you come to that conclusion, you’re asking who the “teller” of the Silmarillion is. And it’s no longer how Tolkien envisioned the history of the elves, it’s how Tolkien thinks the elves would tell their own history. This is probably obvious to many of you, but it took me about 10 years to figure out.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Morgan says, about “the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins)” (and at the risk of being attracting his contempt I’m willing to admit that I find that stirring and often moving) because that’s the sort of text it is. That’s the structure it’s modelling itself upon. Very rarely do I feel any deep interest in all these noble people, because it’s not really about them. And things like realworld racial issues, realworld gender issues, realworld class issues; those things that affect so many actual people may have no place in this grand Good vs Evil narrative, and black and white as colours for your characters can be Archetypes if you’re willing to not think about their implications for actual people of colour. So when he leaves out the stuff that’s actually happening in the world he’s living in, I’m not sure if it’s because he’s “in full, panic-stricken flight from it”. You could criticise Tolkien’s choice of this form - it’s probably easier to choose a literary form that allows you to ignore this stuff if you’re a white dude in Britain. But having chosen it, you would hardly expect the books to offer any deep insight into the human condition.

What interests me is actually how much he allows to slip through the cracks.

Take the battle in The Two Towers, between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings. Saruman has fired up the Dunlendings by reminding them that the Rohirrim took their land centuries ago (The movie version shows this bit rather well, incidentally). Tolkien never addresses this or tries to prove that the Rohirrim were justified, or that Gondor had a perfect right to take land from one group of people and give it to another. Now you could assume that this is because it’s self-evident within the text that Gondor and Rohan have a right to do whatever they like (also the Dunlendings are kind of swarthy). But it’s open; an accusation has been made and not disproved, the Rohirrim are no longer unstained, and the Dunlendings might actually have a point.* That’s pretty big.

And there’s that bit Morgan points to, where the Orcs turn human, just for a moment. And (however much he may fail at women in general) Gandalf explaining to Eomer that Eowyn’s life was actually not that much fun. And the deliberate use of Merry and Pippin who, when they’re not being the comic relief, are the most human things about the text. It’s not enough, but that it’s there at all frequently fascinates me.

Which would probably be a good reason for me (an adult) to read “something like that” even if it didn’t move me as much as it so often does.

(Part 2 will follow, containing my own list of things to love Tolkien for and insightful insights into the trouble with literary criticism about the man! Eventually.)

* I’m not going to talk about Tolkien and colonialism here. Mainly because I recently wrote a 7000 word paper on it, and anything less than 7000 words would seem simplistic and not really what I want to say. But I do recommend that you read (if you can) Elizabeth Massa Hoiem’s “World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in “Aldarion and Erendis”" in Tolkien Studies Vol.2. It’s rather excellent.

May 10, 2008

A 101 post (of sorts)

“Feminist, Fangirl, and Maker of Fine Omelettes”

This was for quite a long time in the “about me” section of my blogger profile and so is probably familiar to some of you.

One of the things I fangirl is the internet. I have a crush on the internet. I love that it’s this huge, chaotic mess that allows for things like serious groundbreaking academic work, and really perverse football slash, and LiveJournal communities dedicated to pictures of baby animals.
Back in February, Amit Varma wrote this gloriously geeky article in the Indian Express:

The blogosphere is a meritocratic space. Each blog finds the audience it deserves. If you like economics, you’ll find tons of good economics blogs, often much better than anything you’ll see in the mainstream media, because they’re written by specialists, not generalists. You want gardening? Literature? Technology? You’ll find content in any niche you can think of.
There is a lot of junk on the internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.

And this exemplifies the stuff I love about the internet. Who wouldn’t be excited by a system that has space for pretty much anything, that is completely free, where your rewards are based purely on merit, and the like? The internet is really very sexy.

But then there’s the “feminist” thing too. I’ve been female on the internet for some years now. More, I’ve been a female who blogs under my real name. There’s a reason comments on this blog are moderated. Then there was the Kathy Sierra incident. It seems (cue shocked gasps) that the internet does not exist in a vacuum. How about race? How about that bloggers’ lunch with Bill Clinton in Harlem that somehow only white people attended?

Apparently some of those nasty meatspace power dynamics have cunningly leaked in here too. Who would have thought? And they’re there affecting who gets heard, and by how many people, and by which people, and yes, who gets book deals. And so on.

What I’m saying, or should be, is that it’s inevitable for people who are naturally excited by concepts/ideas to focus on the concept itself and stop noticing the cultural context within which the idea exists. But only if they’re the people who that cultural context is made for, who are not constantly alienated by it.( Note how I cleverly do not use that word.) Except you can’t separate things from their contexts because their contexts inevitably influence them.

Which brings me, inevitably to the Open Source Boob Project. I was going to say a lot more about this when it happened but was lazy and by the time I started lots of other people had said it for me. But to me, this is a classic case of the sort of thing I’m talking about. A world where sexuality and bodies aren’t stigmatised? Undoubtedly a good thing. Approaching women in a male dominated space and asking them if they’ll consent to participate in a Social Experiment where people can come up to them and ask to touch their breasts? Um.

Context. It’s important.

And so are omelettes.

April 25, 2008

Americans, Zebras and What I Learned From Sweet Valley High

I was going to write a flippant (hopefully funny) post about the IPL’s imported cheerleaders, and about cheerleading in general. But I’ve read far too many Funny Posts (and articles) about them now, and pretty much everyone who wrote one has come off sounding like an asshat.

U. Roy illustrates this in a Hindustan Times column about how cheerleaders should expect lewd remarks from crowds because of what they do (of course, he’s not “going down that dodgy route of ‘If you wear a mini-skirt in a dark alley expect the worst’ logic. He’s said he isn’t, so obviously he isn’t), how if the lewd remarks were in English the cheerleaders would feel complimented, and how amazing it is that a woman from Uzbekistan has actually been able to communicate her discomfort with said remarks.

Sigh.

As a youngling, one of my first moments-of-great-realization was had while reading Sweet Valley High # 70, Ms. Quarterback. In which Claire, who aspires to be on the football team, offers her opinion of cheerleading (unasked) to a cheerleader.

The disdain on Claire’s face was obvious. “Don’t you think being a cheerleader
is just a little bit sexist?” she blurted out. “After all, it’s just a bunch of
girls prancing around in cute little costumes….I think you’d do yourselves and
everyone else a lot more good if you played a sport instead of jumping around
and screaming.”

As awful as it is to base ones politics on bad teenage literature, this actually brought a lot of things together for me. I’ve always been a sports fan, and while this has meant occasionally being patronized by males who kindly attempted to educate me about sports (since I couldn’t possibly be as informed as them), it’s also meant that I’ve been taken more seriously for being interested in Important, Serious things. You know, sweaty men chasing a ball. Not frivolous things. Why does Claire wish the cheerleaders to play sports? Is it because sports will give them a better workout and be good for their health? I doubt this. My cultural references for what cheerleaders do are limited, but I’ve always had the impression fitness and decent gymnastic skills were a part of it. No, sports is serious business because it’s associated with boys. Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about this, and it’s why Project:Objectify exists. Men’s sports need to be taken less seriously and knocked off that pedestal, and I say this as someone who cries at great moments in sport.

(It amuses me that men’s sports tend to have far more frivolous, spectator-friendly add ons than women’s sports, simply because there are more spectators. Women’s sport is thus closer to pure sport than men’s.)

But. Cheerleaders are basically supposed to up the enthusiasm of the crowd, yes? Why on earth do we need them then? This is India and cricket – our problem isn’t a lack of crowd interest, it’s an excess of it. If any sport needed cheerleaders it was our national football league. A couple of years ago they obtained a troupe of Shiamak Davar trained cheerleaders called the ZeBras. Sadly, even the addition of scantily clad women couldn’t raise interest in the league, and the ZeBras don’t even merit a mention in the numerous articles about this new! American! feature in Indian sports.

And as a connoisseur of all that is Shiny in sport, and a caster of stern glances upon the patriarchy, all I can really do is demand glittery-thonged male cheerleaders for women’s cricket. It’s the least we can do.

(People who watch televised US sports, answer this because I don’t know – when cheerleaders are televised are there usually this many up-skirt/crotch shots? They’re all I seem to be seeing on a lot of the sports and news channels.)