A Daemon on your sleeve

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve been on a writing hiatus for the  past month, and hence there have been no updates. After a few weeks of cold and carbs and cousins, I have decided it’s time to slowly pull myself back into the  writing seat. Alas, time and fame wait for no one. Or well, fame does, but the  effort required to get it doesn’t appreciate breaks when they stretch too long.

This is a year of many anniversaries, but perhaps none is so important to me as this: 2017 marks twenty years of Harry Potter! MSDHAPO EC040Harry Potter and the  Philosopher’s Stone was brought into this less-than-deserving world in 1997, which means that the  kids born along with the  book are now legally allowed to drive, get married and (in Europe at least) drink alcohol. They might even have had kids of their own. This is slightly insane.

But in celebration of this all-important anniversary, I’ve decided that every month, I’ll do a long-ish, meandering, beautifully worded post on the Potter books. ‘That’s not very different from what you usually do,’ you might say, and you’d be right. But this is a conscious decision, and these posts will be planned, which, if Pullman’s His Dark Materials are to be believed, makes all the  difference, since it signals intent and self-awareness and that all important and elusive thing: consciousness. Just go with me here.

Pullman actually segues perfectly into what I wanted to talk about today: the  desire to ‘know’ oneself, and the  translation of this yearning in fantasy fiction, specfically the  fiction meant for a younger audience. I’ve spoken about this earlier, in my post on Ron Weasley. I was a teenager when the  internet arrived at home, and made its presence felt in my social life. Noisy dial-ups and tied up phone lines notwithstanding, I made good use of it, MSN Messenger-ing with the  same people I had seen in school just hours earlier. There was the  high when my crush logged on and we entered into conversations peppered with sms language (him) and excited questions and too long answers (me). But apart from these conversations, my greatest pastime was reading Inuyasha or Lord of the  Rings fanfiction, or and taking ‘personality tests’.

housesThese things have made a comeback, thanks to the  Internet’s greatest  popularity contest, Buzzfeed. But they’ve been around for ages, and I think my devotion to them at 13, a weird, in-between, annoying age, is telling. I might have dismissed it as ‘just me’ if it weren’t for the  fact that so many of the  books I read at that age, especially the  fantasy ones, dealt with these ideas too, and so explicitly. The  fascination to know oneself has persisted: what else explains the fact that, despite smart commentators and readers calling out the  stupidity of the  Hogwarts Sorting, so many of us continue to take those Pottermore quizzes, to discuss our Houses with our friends, and attempt to ‘Sort’ the  characters of shows we watch, or the  real people we see on TV? The Hogwarts Sorting, though far from perfect, at least points towards certain traits in the  characters, or what they hold as most important at that moment. It’s more than most of us can say about our ‘House’ sorting in school, where people are literally just shuffled into teams on the  basis of numbers.

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And as much as Rowling might show us that the  Sorting is almost entirely random, that it’s literally done on the  basis of an eleven year old’s current frame of mind and understanding of herself, we continue to put some store in it. The  thinking behind the Sorting is what drives us to figure out what our Patroni would be, wands, Animagus and now, Ilvermorny houses. All of these results go some little way towards telling us something about ourselves we’ve long suspected, wanted to confirm. For instance, the  Pottermore test told me my Patronus would be a black mamba snake, which makes me feel mysterious, sexy and powerful. If only I knew it weren’t a computer algorithm producing this result, I’d feel even better about it.

hdmThe  ‘daemons’ of Pullman’s Dark Materials books are literally aspects of the  human soul given physical form. When a daemon ‘settles’, takes on its permanent shape, it reveals something about the  person it belongs to. For instance, a person who enjoys exploring, moving from one place to the  next, mentally or physically, may have a bird daemon, or a faithful and steady persona be paired off with a dog. What’s even more interesting is that the  sex of the  daemon is usually the  opposite of that of its human, though Pullman does mention a character whose dog daemon is male, like its master. He leaves unclear the  implications of this, which is a trifle surprising in an author who dared to literally kill God in his books.

But knowing yourself is one thing, it’s another entirely to wear that knowledge on your sleeve and let the  world see it. That’s what the  Sorting does: brand you for life in a small, small world where people make snap judgments based on your mindset as an eleven-year-old. The  daemon bares your soul, literally, and allows people to make decisions about the  kind of person you are, with no hiding or space for misreading. You’d have to get really, really good at dissimulation in a world like that. Thankfully, with social media, we’re making huge strides in that direction. So maybe we’re finally daemon-ready; the  filters have trained us well.

A Tale of Elven Overlords

There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the  Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the  dawning of Men means the  end of the  other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the  two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.

those-above-coverIn some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the  Eldar had continued to dwell in the  same lands as the  humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the  two races to have united fronts in the  first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the  more advanced of the  two, the  Elves, holding dominion over the  many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the  premise of Polansky’s narrative.

The  Others, the  Eternal, the  Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the  human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the  top of a mountain, in the  Roost, with the  five lower rungs populated by the  humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the  human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the  Eternal. Until now.

I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The  story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a  military commander of the  Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the  Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the  Fifth Rung, the  most poverty-stricken area of the  Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the  mind of the  reader. The  Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the  rest, related as they are to the  politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the  Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the  way through that the  narratives seem to come together, and the  threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.

But when they do come together, the  effect is so worth it. If Lord of those-belowthe  Rings is the  premise, the  execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the  interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the  rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the  characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the  bluff, but essentially good, military man, the  scheming widow, the  pretty, devoted servant, and the  angry young man. And yet, the  way they play against each other, and the  events that they are spiraled into, make the  reading worthwhile.

Though finally, it’s the  Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the  reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the  struggles against them, and the  various forms those struggles take, the  Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the  humans in their world, and the  readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.

Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the  world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the  books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the  best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the  Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself. 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, or, The Potterverse Extravaganza, Ep. 1

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry has to buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

eddieHow does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

Fantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

goldsteinsIf the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that there is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

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Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

The Potterverse is coming for you.
The Potterverse is coming for you.