Kicking off the lead up to Women’s Day, fantasy style

So in a grand comeback gesture, I’ve decided to post every day (a bit ambitious, I know, and there are going to be hurdles, like travel and friends in the way) about a different female fantasy character who I see as being a ‘worthy’ model for a modern woman. There I go, stepping into dangerous territory, by dragging in categories worth debating like ‘modern’, ‘woman’and ‘worthy’. There’s no way to de-politicize this however, and I’ve sort of made my peace with that (I think). Besides, why SHOULD I de-politicize and de-radicalize my stance in a world where EVERY THIRD woman is raped and/or sexually abused, and most are subjected, no matter what their race, caste, colour or class background, to verbal and physical sexual harrassment nearly every day of their lives. Yes, living in a city like Delhi in India has served to make this disgusting reality much more immediate than it has been for the past 20 years of my life, and yes, the recent incidents have served to underline the horror and sheer banality of these happenings, but here, in my blog, I want to remind myself of WHAT reading fantasy literature has taught me, how its women have shone as beacons in what often seems a lightless world, and given me the courage to not despair and just give up on humanity.

Though sometimes it seems so, so tempting.

Anyway to turn from darker thoughts. Let me start with my oldest fantasy love, the Ur-text of my musings and writerly daydreams, The Lord of the Rings. Here, I shall shamelessly plagiarize from one of my own old essays, and wax poetic on the Lady of Light herself, Galadriel of Lothlorien.

Fitting, really, given that she is the oldest on my list by, oh, millenia.

 ‘The Lady of Lothlorien’, Galadriel is presented to the reader as ‘no less tall than [her husband]…grave and beautiful.’ She is ‘clad wholly in white…[with] hair of deep gold.’ She bears ‘no sign of age’ (being, in fact, immortal) but for the ‘depths of [her] eyes, for these were as keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.’

 

In the creation of this character, Tolkien drew upon sources both literary and religious in nature. Galadriel embodies the ‘missing mother figure’ that is a common icon in many fairy tales. She provides guidance and hospitality to the Fellowship: feeding, clothing and lading them with gifts before sending them on their way. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the Biblical figure said to be her source: the Virgin Mary.

 

 The parallels between the two are obvious when TLOTR is compared to a late nineteenth-early twentieth century ballad by Chesterton: ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’. The hero in this poem is called Alfred, a dispossessed king on a quest to win back his rightful kingdom from the usurping Danes. Chesterton’s poem begins with Alfred’s vision of the Virgin, who counsels him to fight on against the Danes, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for him:

 

 

But if he fail or if he win

To no good man is told…

 

I tell you naught for your comfort

Yea, naught for your desire

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

 Galadriel’s Mirror, which Frodo looks into during his stay in Lothlorien, shows the viewer many images, but there is no knowing whether they are set in the past, the present, or the future. When Frodo asks whether she advises him to look into it, Galadriel responds:

 ‘I do not counsel you one way or the other. I am not a counselor. You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous. Yet I think, Frodo, that you have courage and wisdom enough for the venture, or I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!’

 Galadriel urges the Fellowship to continue on their Quest, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for them. Like the conventional mother figure, she offers a refuge for the weary travelers, and is a provider of miraculous gifts and articles that will help them overcome obstacles and achieve their aim. Even the Ring she wears- Nenya- is the Ring of preservation with the power to save and nurture- gifts traditionally ascribed to the mother.

 The Elven Queen also bears traces of another Biblical figure by the name of Mary, but this one is a far cry from the Virgin Mother. Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman who is redeemed by Christ, is also a source for Galadriel. Like Magdalene, she too once sinned. She rebels against the Valar (the great spirits who created the world) and leaves their kingdom (Valinor) to come to Middle Earth and ‘be free’. Once there, she rises to great power, becoming one of the holders of the Three Elven Rings, and Queen of her own realm, but barred from entering Valinor. Her great test comes in the form of the One Ring. When Frodo offers it to her she is momentarily tempted (or so it seems) by the desire for more power. The Hobbit sees her standing before him:

 ”…tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall , and suddenly she laughed again and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf woman, clad in simple  white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test,” she said, “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” ‘

By giving up her chance instead of swooping upon and seizing the One Ring when it is offered to her ‘freely’, Galadriel redeems herself and the ban on her is lifted. She is allowed to sail away to Valinor at the end of the book.

 How well does Galadriel conform to any fairy tale type? As far as being a good powerful woman goes, Galadriel defeats the general run of the group members by being quite capable of exciting admiration among men. Yet, like other good powerful fairy tale figures, she is detached from the action in a sense, appearing only to aid the Fellowship, then slipping back into the green shadows of her land. Frodo sees her as ‘present and yet remote; a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’ Samwise Gamgee attempts to capture the Lady of Lorien with words:

“Beautiful she is…! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far off as a snow mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.”

 Galadriel seems to defeat all definition, instead remaining a curious blend of conflicting qualities- both nurturer and redeemed, immediate and remote, gentle and imperious. Rigidly delineated categories seem to stutter and fall before her- all rendered a ‘lot o’ nonsense’ and ‘wide’ (perhaps in this case too narrow!) ‘of the mark’.

Image

 

 

An Ending

They say there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.

But there is an ending.

And what an ending it is/was/will be.

(Warning, there do be spoilers here.)

The Wheel of Time series has been, for me, many things. Best friend in the annals of high school loneliness, support in times of college strife and romantic misadventure, steady backbone of fantastic escape when all I wanted was to switch off and disappear from a mundane, workaday existence of assignments and term papers and weekly tutorials. It has seen me grow from a self-assured fourteen year old to a less-self assured twenty-three year old, from high school to a first job. It arrived shortly after my first foray into Middle Earth, and like Middle Earth, it stuck by me, and shaped me in ways that I don’t yet comprehend.

Maybe a re-read would settle those questions. Hey, any excuse works!

Given its importance in my life, reading ‘A Memory of Light’, the last book, has been a very, well, emotional experience. Not only would I constantly find myself thanking the team at Tor and Brandon Sanderson for taking up Jordan’s heavy mantle with such spirit and enthusiasm, but there were times when I had to force myself to stop reading, so that I could have one more day with this universe. I didn’t want to let go.

Jordan and Sanderson have really outdone themselves in this last book. Each of the characters shone, even the ones I had disliked (or been irritated by) in previous novels. Elayne was such a brilliant Queen, an inspiring figure that I couldn’t help but admire as she rallied her troops and gave Aragorn-like speeches in the face of certain destruction. Min finally found herself, it seemed, and stepped out of Rand’s shadow, coming into a role of her own in her office as ‘Doomseer’. Aviendha, that wonderful woman, blazed in battle, a fount of determination and strength that I am sure I will look to when I feel weak and lost myself. Nynaeve, though less vocal here than in the earlier books, stood solid and steadfast to the end.

But all of them, every single character, male or female, paled beside the one who has been steadily stealing my heart for the last seven books. The one who would not be bowed, though pressed time and time again. The one who does not, and never will know the meaning of the words ‘give up’. Honestly, I think she outshone Rand, the Dragon Reborn.

Egwene al’Vere was amazing. The immature girl who left the Two Rivers grew to hero status steadily in the course of the books, and she exited in a beautiful storm. I don’t think I’ve seen a better or more affecting death-scene in a fantasy novel. She’s risen above the rest, in my estimation, on a crystal column woven of Light, a heroine for Ages to come.

If I were to sit and discuss every character, I suspect this review would become entirely too long. So I’ll save my thoughts for a later day, and do each of them justice in individual posts. Let’s turn to more pedestrian, less emotionally charged aspects now.

‘A Memory of Light’ proceeds smoothly from the night before the grand meeting at the Field of Merrilor to the close of the Last Battle, when Rand’s body is cremated before Shayol Ghul. We get glimpses of old, familiar faces- Hurin, Juilin, Haral Luhhan, Ila the Tinker- as well as longer, more sustained rendezvous with characters like Tam al’Thor, Lan, Faile, even the until-now elusive Demandred. The central characters of course dominate the book- Mat, Perrin, Egwene and Rand. Each of their stories is followed with attention and detail, and you can see how much Jordan, and by extension, Sanderson have loved and invested in these people’s lives.

It was heartening to see that the Shadow did have a plot, that it stood a good chance of winning, and wasn’t bested simply by the luck of the protagonists or the will of the author. I know its unfair to compare, say, Demandred to Lord Voldemort, but if only Voldemort had had some of the former’s brains and planning ability, the conclusion to Harry Potter might not have been as anticlimactic as it was. Here, the Light won on its own strength. It was a good victory, precisely because it came so hard.

The ‘true battle’ that took place in the bowels of Shayol Ghul, I’m still wrapping my head around it. At least, around its fall-out. I know people have been predicting the ‘body swap’ for ages, but I’m still a little confused on how it happened. I suppose a re-read will help sort that out. It is ironic that Moridin was forced to help seal the Light’s victory, a tongue-in-cheek manoeuvre to show that yes, no matter how long someone walks in the shadow, he can turn back to the light. Even if against his will.

I didn’t care much for how the Black Tower plotline was concluded, but it was one small smidgeon on an otherwise ‘exquisite’ canvas. Jordan has left just enough open doors for his readers’ imaginations to run wild, to wonder what happens now. Will the Aiel be safe from the doom Aviendha and Bair saw for them? Will the Seanchan chain of command collapse after the revelations that Egeanin and Min will bring to light concerning the damane and sul’dam? Will Perrin and Faile move to Saldaea, or stay in the Two Rivers and govern from afar? Will Olver really dispose of the Horn?

I’m sure someone will pick over these questions, in forums, in fan fiction, in theory blogs. But right now, all I want to do if find the ‘Eye of the World’ again, return to a time when Rand, Mat and Perrin were young and innocent and thought Baerlon was a big city. I want to follow them through their adventures once again, secure in the knowledge that no matter how dark the moment seems, they will be all right, nay, more than all right at the end.

It will not be the beginning, there are neither beginnings nor endings to the reading of ‘The Wheel of Time’.

But it will be a beginning.

 

Make, Create, Do

Three things I should be doing right now, but am failing at miserably. It is so easy to sit in front of an empty computer screen (empty but for the baleful glare of the white Word document), and let your mind drift. I see the riches that will pour into my hands when I become a best-selling novelist, the smart quips I will deliver at literary festivals, the change I can effect in children’s lives through my persuasive morals and admirable characters. I proudly declared on my college application form that I wanted to ‘be the next J K Rowling’. That I would create the next Harry Potter.

Doesn’t seem to have happened.

Because it’s easy to dream, it’s harder to buckle down to it and work. My friend has just gotten a novel published. We’ve both talked about the day when we would be celebrated writers, but unlike me, the daydreaming and glory-spying Slytherin, she went ahead and actually wrote her book. Hufflepuffian work ethic does count for something. It might not sound as fancy as the Slytherin ambitousness, but it gets you places.

When I am uninspired (which is fairly often), I listen to or read Neil Gaiman’s famous commencement address, ‘Make Good Art’. I think the man is a genius, and fervently hope to be like him when I grow up (a state whose attainment I postpone every year), so of course I take everything he says to his devoted fanbase very seriously. I put down random quotes from the speech on the sticky notes on my desktop, I quote him in my favourite quotes list on Facebook, I gush about him to all and sundry. But I have failed to put his advice into practice, haven’t I? Aye, there’s the rub.

It’s easier to say that I want to make, create, do something that causes people to admire me, read me, look me up on the internet, than to actually log off my phone, get off whatsapp, ignore the insistent Facebook notifications (which, really, are not that insistent. I like to pretend that they are). It’s easier to dream about what my panel at a litfest will be called rather than write the piece or say the words that would get me there. It’s easier to say that I am a Slytherin than to actually put the house’s principles into practice.

Not the principles that Voldemort and his cronies declared in their manifesto, of course. The other bit- about being ambitous and clever and wending your way to the top. Ends are not always bad for Slytherins, nor are the means. The books, to a great extent, stooped to simplifying and thereby vilifying the house. But an angst post about the literary and ethical demerits of this will appear at a later time.

The point of this post, really, is to say that I must Make, Create, Do. A public declaration has often had the effect of me feeling (sometimes nonexistent) judging eyes, deriding me if I fail to later keep up with the spirit of my words. I am hoping that this will have that effect, and that my lazy Muse will dust himself off or come back from his vacation in the wilds of wherever she/he has disappeared to.

Accio inspiration!