The Great Tolkien Re-Read AND Re-Watch: The Fellowship of the Ring

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The Fellowship of the Ring is what happened when Tolkien wanted to write about more Elves but everyone else wanted more Hobbits. A Hobbit-centric tale that has tons of Elvish backstory crammed into every nook and cranny of the story. And I absolutely love it.

Bilbo is finally ready to retire, giving one massive party (AIN’T NO PARTY LIKE A HOBBIT PARTY), playing one last prank on everyone, and disappearing off into the wild. After a struggle, he manages to leave behind his Ring to Frodo. Gandalf, suspicious of the Ring…tells Frodo not to use it then nopes off for years. Yeah, nearly twenty years pass before Gandalf finally shows back up to give Frodo all the backstory on Sauron…and then everyone still waits around for months before heading off just as Ringwraiths show up. Even Bilbo thinks it was a rather silly scheme.

But despite this, it does the job in making the book exciting. Tolkien is a master at creating escalating conflicts and obstacles for his characters. He first pits them against the old Forest, which is unconnected to the main conflict but still starts building their endurance and their wisdom. Then he brings in the Ringwraiths to the forefront, and later on brings in the Balrog. Someone else (I can’t recall the name) noted that Tolkien has this seesaw plot where they go through a period of fear, then have a period of rest, and you can see this through all three books.

One thing I really noticed this time around, and it’s probably because it was a focus of my senior thesis in college, was the theme of nature as both beautiful and dangerous. While some people think of Tolkien as an old hippie, he was really just a bit of a reactionary. Despite having been a literal tree-hugger, he was also fully aware that nature was not all sunshine and roses. Nature is a force to be respected, not controlled. His reaction against technology was because technology was too often used to control nature rather than mitigate the effects of nature. Everyone complains about Tom Bombadil, but he is a good statement on this concept. He doesn’t rule over nature; he is merely the steward of the little plot of forest where he lives. This lack of ruling or controlling is why the Ring doesn’t affect him.

Another example is Caradhras, which is just another malevolent aspect of nature rather than a tool of the enemy. While it could be noted that everything seemed to unite to drive them into Moria, where they would encounter the Balrog, it’s never stated what force it is that is doing this. It could just as easily be the will of Iluvatar, preparing the way for Gandalf to become Gandalf the White. (And yes, Gandalf absolutely should have come back, that is how this world works, MARTIN, try understanding the actual backstory and world-building.)

Perhaps because it’s October and everyone is gearing up for Halloween and talking about spooky things, but I noted how well Tolkien could write creepy passages. The Ringwraiths still give me a shiver, and this time, the descriptions of Gollum were rather creepy to me too.

Some people have described this as rather slow, and it is, compared to other fantasy. Then again, a lot of popular fantasy is about the epic battles. Tolkien, while he writes great epic battles, was not writing to glorify war. The entire point of the books is that war has its place and purpose, but it is not what will ultimately defeat evil. In this universe, if you’ve read all of the backstory, you will know that Morgoth essentially turned the world itself into his “Ring”; he poured much of his will and malice into the shaping of the world through his discordant song. Literally the only thing that will ultimately defeat evil is the unmaking and remaking of the world, which will only happen after Arda’s Ragnarok, where the Valar, the Maiar, and the great heroes stop Morgoth and Sauron for good.

Galadriel refers to them “fighting the long defeat”, which is another Norse concept that has found its way into the book. Galadriel knows she has only been holding out against the inevitable ending of their world. She came to Middle Earth to rule as a queen, but finds she must let her world, and her rule, end, in order to create a better world. She must give up her own ambitions and submit to the will of Iluvatar at last, and this she does.

Even in this book you get that bittersweet feeling of beautiful things ending. We know that Aragorn and Frodo do not return to Lothlorien; we also know that as Galadriel disappears from view on the river, she is diminishing even then, already fading into the past that will never come again.

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You know, the prologue of the movie didn’t give me chills the way it usually does. Possibly because I know the story like the back of my hand, so it’s old hat. But also, I sort of question the prologue? I mean, the book had a prologue…about Hobbits. The rest of the backstory, while it definitely was given in an infodump, was given as part of an infodump to Frodo, rather than to the reader. So I guess this time around I felt like this all would have made better sense had Gandalf given Frodo a cliff notes version of it all, and we got the rest of it from Elrond later on at the council.

I also forgot how they did the timing in this as well. Gandalf comes back, sends Frodo off immediately to Bree because he’s pretty sure the Ringwraiths are already out and about, and then rides toward Isengard, which doesn’t make sense because they’re in the same direction. If it was that urgent, then it would make better sense for Gandalf to get Frodo safely to Rivendell then go see Saruman. In the books, of course, Gandalf didn’t think it was urgent to be off immediately–which is why Frodo takes his sweet time leaving the Shire.

Of course, these are all quibbles. The fact is, this movie captures the spirit of the books very well. You still get the sense that this is really only part of a much larger story; you still have a sense of both wonder and fear. I didn’t even complain about a lack of Glorfindel this time! As much as I am a member of the Glorfindel fan club, it makes sense they would use Arwen, a character that is more relevant to the tale, in his part.

I’ve always felt the casting was amazing for these movies. Everyone really feels like they belonged to the characters they were given (especially Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Christopher Lee as Saruman–never have I so enjoyed seeing two old men try to beat each other with their walking sticks).

One thing I did like was that the movie is great at portraying Boromir’s extremely mixed motives. He wants to defend his home; he wants to gain glory. In the book, he comes to the council even though Faramir was the chief recipient of the prophetic dream. Boromir simultaneously wants to keep his brother from going on an extremely dangerous journey, but also gain glory for their home. We don’t get that part (we assume he’s just at the council to ask for help), but we do see his constant struggles. He cares for his people, and he comes to care for the Hobbits, especially Merry and Pippin. He knows he shouldn’t want to take the Ring, but he desperately does anyways. He has all the pride of his father’s line, but comes to recognize Aragorn as a good leader and accepts him as the future king. His death is actually more affecting than Gandalf’s, because you know that he is trying to redeem himself.

My only other quibble is with Aragorn’s characterization. Because modern audiences are allergic to flat character arcs, we find Aragorn is waffling on this whole “king” thing, and rather doubting his strength to fight Sauron, doubts his own morality. I know they were trying to give him a compelling character arc as well, but Aragorn was already a compelling character without him struggling with his own feelings about being king.

But, in the end, it’s an excellent movie that, like the books, gives us a glimmer of hope in the darkness.

QuickLit: October 2020

It’s QuickLit time once more! Time to see what everyone else on the Intertubez have been reading these days. You can check out the original QuickLit over on Modern Mrs. Darcy.

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First off, my spooky reading for Spooktober. Edith Wharton didn’t just write about class angst during the Gilded Age. She also wrote some intriguing ghost stories.

This collection isn’t just ghost stories, but also psychological horror and mysteries. The first one, “The Bolted Door”, gives us a very unreliable narrator. Is he really a murderer, or has he invented the story as a way to commit suicide-by-cop? And is he simply unconvincing, or is he slowly losing his mind…?

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of them, especially the ghost stories.

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I’m continuing my Great Tolkien Re-Read, and I’m very much enjoying myself. Boromir’s death made me cry as usual, and I’m currently reading about Treebeard, always a treat. There is a great version of the Ents’ marching song here on YouTube:

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So, what books have you been reading lately? Intriguing new releases or old favorites?

And, most importantly, are you deliberately trying to spook yourself with scary stories like I am???

Book Review: Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery

Y’ALL WANT SOME WORLD WAR I PROPAGANDA? WELL HERE YA GO

Okay that last one isn’t World War I propaganda, but it might as well be.

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As you can tell, I had some…feelings…about Rilla of Ingleside. So, let’s go ahead and get those feelings out of the way, shall we?

This book was nothing more than Montgomery’s post-World War I propaganda. Everything about the war absolutely mirrored some of these propaganda posters, from Rilla regularly declaring if she were a man she would have followed Walter to war, all the women vowing to be “heroines” about the situation, and Susan apparently believing that one poster where Germans are going to march on tiny little rural towns. People outright state that the Germans are trying to take over the world (little early, people, just wait about 20 years…), and the only “pacifist” is implied to be covering up his pro-German sensibilities with pacifist talk, despite the only things he ever said were “war is bad, people are dying for no reason”, which actually describes World War I quite well. Said pacifist also abuses animals and his daughter, and is against sending medical aid to civilians, so he’s not really that much of a pacifist.

To be fair, it would be much harder for Britain to get people pumped for the war if they were like “well, Germany declared war on our allies, so we’re declaring war on them. What can ya do lol”. So depicting the Germans as barbarians and maniacs gave people something to fight against.

Granted, there were war crimes a-plenty happening, with the rape of Belgium almost being a stage rehearsal for Germany’s later round-up of “undesirables” in World War II. But, Germany’s motives were obviously very different.

The problem with Rilla of Ingleside is that the bulk of it was just this propaganda. It’s probably a pretty accurate depiction of how people were like then (although, honestly, did everyone follow the battles so religiously on their maps at home? Other than Edith Tolkien, I mean?) Susan is completely intolerable at this point, constantly complaining about war strategy she knows nothing about, and even worse, constantly complaining about a cat who clearly has some sort of trauma.

In fact, moving away from the constant propaganda, I’ve finally decided Montgomery probably didn’t like cats very much. Apart from the constant maligning of poor Dr. Jekyll (pictured above, doing his part in the war), there is also the drowning of a poor innocent kitten by the Rev. Meredith’s youngest son, who thinks if he offers a sacrifice to God then the war will end and Jem will come home.

You know, the kids in these books have some incredibly weird ideas about God. I don’t remember imbibing any of this bizarre theology when I was a kid. Maybe these people are just really, really bad at explaining their own religion to their children.

Anyways, everyone thinks it’s heartwarming that little Bruce would do this, meanwhile I’m kept up at night thinking about that poor kitten.

There is also the problem of the main romance. It just…wasn’t believable at all. Rilla clearly has a crush on Kenneth Ford. She is 15, he is 18. Look, I know things like that happened, but I’m still thinking about this grown man flirting with a 15 year old who hasn’t even gotten into longer dresses yet. It would be one thing if she was more mature, but at the time she’s very flighty and clearly still more child than woman, despite her protests. Also, apart from the one part where he asks Rilla to promise not to kiss anyone else, we never see them really interact, never see them say anything romantic or loving to each other. They spend the vast majority of the book apart, and we don’t hear anything about his letters. Rilla spends most of this time wondering if he really loves her at all, despite Anne’s reassurance that he does.

Finally, I was surprised that Walter’s death was not a more emotional part of the book. It came at the end of another long, tedious passage of propaganda, and it was so downplayed I had to re-read it to make sure it actually said what I thought it said. I think this sort of abruptness to it could have worked, but the way it was structured just did nothing for me. I expected to be sorrowful but instead I was like “oh, so it finally happened”. Maybe being spoiled beforehand lessened the impact; but then again when I still cry over deaths in books I’ve read multiple times.

The parts I did like were essentially Rilla’s coming of age. The start of her growing up begins when she rescues a war baby who is being neglected by his aunt, after the mother dies. She doesn’t even have him in clothes, and ignores his cries. Never have I wanted some terrible thing to happen to a character more. I was surprised by Gilbert’s behavior, telling Rilla that she would have to do the bulk of child-raising herself or the baby would need to be sent to an orphanage, where he would most likely die of neglect. Though the narrative makes it clear he actually was ready to step in when needed, I still think it’s one of those “parents need to stop exaggerating or lying to their kids to get them to do things”. Obviously Rilla should be involved, but putting the bulk of childcare onto your fifteen year old daughter and your overworked housekeeper doesn’t seem like a good idea. (Not to mention despite him saying Anne shouldn’t be bothered by yet, from what we see she would have gladly helped out, once expressing a desire for something to do to keep herself from brooding over the war.) I think it’s funny that Montgomery intended this to be Rilla getting over her “baby hating ways”, when in reality she didn’t. She liked little Jims once he became a sweet attractive child instead of a squirmy little lizard baby. (Fun fact, my parents referred to me as a lizard after I was born. Thanks mom and dad!) I did think the unexpected fortune given to Jims was too much of a deus-ex-machina, along with his father marrying a woman who promises to keep her charming but lackadaisical husband in line. (I think it doesn’t need to be said that you shouldn’t have to nag your partner into working, but here I am saying it.)

So, overall, it was an okay book but not one I would go back to. I also have no plans to read the Chronicles of Avonlea; I really want to read about Anne, and it seems like most of the stories don’t involve her at all.

Regarding the series as a whole, I think they should have let Montgomery stop after book 2 or 3. It just kept going downhill, with less of the magic of the first book, more abuse of both women and animals (despite it being common at the time, not everyone took such a matter-of-fact approach to such things even then). When I do want a re-read, I’ll probably stick to the first two books.

Spooktober Book Review: A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century by Tyge Krogh

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So back during my undergrad years I got to read a grotesque and interesting monograph called A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century. I know, I know, the title sounds exactly what you would think a historical monograph would sound like. But it was fascinating and intriguing. Essentially, Tyge Krogh details cases of “suicide by cop”: people who deliberately committed a murder in order to be executed, and often enacted elaborate penitence before their execution. Krogh considers it one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation.

The first section, titled “Morphology”, describes many of these murder-suicides: the perpetrators, the victims, and their motivations. In most of them, the perpetrators were already in unpleasant circumstances. Krogh notes that many of them were housemaids that had been mistreated by their employers, or they were soldiers already in financial or military trouble. Some of the housemaids were also deserted by their lovers, and may have even killed the illegitimate children. We get a picture of a desperate, miserable life.

After this, however, Krogh gets into the heart of matter: the particular religious fervor surrounding the idea of a murder-suicide. The difference in theology brought about by the Reformation created a difference in how society reacted to murders. Within the Catholic Church, and in Catholic countries, the response was rather terse: they gave the condemned over to God for His judgment or grace. However, Protestantism focuses on the conversion experience: salvation is not achieved through works, or through buying indulgences, but through faith. In Lutheran thought, particularly in the Pietist sect, God would grant salvation to anyone who truly repented, even right before death. Krogh neatly traces how this belief slowly turned the trials and executions of those who murdered in order to die into a religious experience.

The pastors who were instructed to help convert the murderers spent a great deal of time trying to achieve their salvation, often saying that God allowed them to fall into such evil as a way to bring them back to Him. Krogh points out that these experiences followed a general pattern: the murderer behaved hardened and cold at first, but after hearing the Word, would repent and spend their last days in penitence and praise. Due to this, the actual prescribed punishments, which included being pinched with hot tongs and broken on the wheel, were often shortened, or simply not done. The newly pious soul would be given a swift death by beheading, and instead of being displayed, were often given a respectful burial.

If even the justice system was affected by these conversion experiences, it is not surprising that society responded with enthusiasm. Krogh includes several ballads written about the murderers and their experiences. These ballads often included injunctions about watching for lesser sins, so one doesn’t fall into greater sin. The murder-suicides were turned into morality tales as well as entertaining tragedies. The beginning would describe the perpetrator’s sins and their fall into temptation. After this, they would repent and accept their punishment as their due, then end the ballad with a description of Heaven’s joys for the lost soul that had been found. One ballad, in which the murderer was an abandoned woman, actually called out the man who had abandoned her. The public, at large, at least understood some of the motivations of the perpetrators.

These religious undertones within a society largely run on religion meant that the murderers often found more sympathy and understanding than they could expect even today. The idea that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” meant that anyone was in danger of falling to the temptation to do violence to another, and that they should watch out for their own salvation, as pointed out in many of the ballads. It also explains why the perpetrators would kill another rather than simply commit suicide: they believed that suicide would almost certainly send them to hell, and their goal was to reach heaven.

Not surprisingly, this began to change as people began to catch on to how the elaborate ceremony behind these executions were encouraging others, and as society became more secular. Once the justice system noticed the increasing numbers of murder suicides based on religious motives, the executions became more standard. Then, as the Enlightenment took hold and people questioned a justice system based on Mosaic law, the idea of executing those who murdered to die began to lose favor. Perpetrators who claimed a religious desire to die were declared insane instead, and often incarcerated in asylums or prisons instead. (Given what both were like at the time, perhaps execution would have been more merciful.)

     Overall, the monograph is a fascinating look at a particularly odd trend within history. Krogh often had to go by the general features of a crime rather than the perpetrator’s stated motive, which means that many of the statistics provided may be inaccurate. However, the general culture surrounding the phenomenon is quite telling, particularly when looked at in conjunction with the concept of a “good death”. I would certainly recommend this to anyone interested in both the religious and grotesque features of the justice system during this time period. It can be found on Brill, and for free if you read it in its various bits and pieces as listed on the site.

Spooktober Movie Review: Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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My only exposure to The Phantom of the Opera was first through the 2004 version of the musical, and then by reading the actual book.

Those are two entirely different things, and boy was the contrast wild.

I finally decided to sit down and watch the 1925 silent movie, and I was not disappointed. I love silent movies. Seeing the transition between theater and all that it entails and film is always a treat, and it’s fun to watch the actors’ movements and behavior more closely than I normally would in a talky.

First, even in watching the original, non-remastered version from 1925, you can tell just how much effort they put into the spectacle and costumes of the movie. The scenery is beautiful, and the various clothing, from the costumes for the opera to the elaborate outfits of the wealthy late Victorians, are delightful. It’s a joy to watch even in black and white. Special shout out goes to the Phantom’s Red Death costume.

I was especially happy that they kept Erik’s bizarre illusory forest. The use of mirrors actually made it just as disorienting for the viewer as you see the frantic Raoul mirrored multiple times, always uncertain where the real one is. The chandelier scene was also suitably tense, and they showed a person getting trampled in the rush to escape.

Characterwise, Mary Philbin does a good job playing the ingenue. The heavy eye makeup common to silent films really emphasizes her large eyes and gives her this innocent but always slightly alarmed look. Norman Kerry as Raoul is actually somewhat more competent than book Raoul. Instead of just moaning he actually goes and does things, and is less helpless when he and Ledoux search for Christine than he was in the books.

Turns out the best way to make Raoul likable is to make him entirely silent.

And of course, Lon Chaney is unforgettable as Erik, who helped design his truly gruesome makeup (no third-degree sunburn for this Phantom). People who are used to the musical where Erik is more of a misunderstood romantic are probably not ready for this Erik, who is far more book accurate. He is, simply put, a mad, childish genius, who takes delight in tricking and hurting people. We see him laughing maniacally, sometimes veering between laughter and sobs, and by the end he is totally unhinged. Unlike in the book, where some of his behavior is surely due to being cast away by everyone, including his own mother, there is no sympathetic backstory for Erik (and no implication that his death is a tragedy). He is simply an escaped prisoner who is a genius with a penchant for torture. Because of this, Raoul’s helper is no longer a Persian who once knew Erik, but a French secret policeman known as Ledoux.

He still wears a fez, however. Fezzes are cool.

Some other highlights include the comical managers as they realize they’re in over their heads, the diva Carlotta (and her dramatic behavior works so well with silent film acting), and the gaggle of ballerinas who twirl around and latch onto the poor scenery manager whenever they’re scared.

It’s a wonderful movie, and definitely recommended for those who would consume literally any piece of media about Phantom. (You know who you are.) You can watch it for free here.

Despair in the Time of Covid and Mordor

2020 has been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? We started out so optimistic, and now 2020 has become the new byword for “at least it can’t get any worse”. Covid continues, with a prediction of another spike in cases as cold weather sets in, social distancing and isolation has led to an increase in mental health issues, people have had to stand by and watch beloved relatives pass through a glass window, unable to be near them in their final moments, racial violence and riots have spread through many of our largest cities, a series of increasingly awful hurricanes has rocked the coasts, and California is on fire even more than usual.

And, to throw some fuel on the metaphorical and literal fire, the first presidential debate did not give any of us good feelings about either of the two candidates who are likely to get elected.

It’s easy to see why everyone is so angry and snippety on social media. It feels like things just continue to get worse, and people search for someone, anyone, to blame it on. So many people feel like they’re islands unto themselves, unable to rely on anyone else for one reason or another.

But remember what the Amon Sûl podcast told us: Never go full Denethor.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the books I read when I need comfort. Despite being full of dreadful things happening to the protagonists, the narrative never tips over into grimdark or edgy despair. And this makes sense. One of the big themes in Tolkien’s great work is hope. Before the Fellowship sets out, Gandalf says that “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt”. They don’t set off on their quest lightly, or thinking it will be an easy task. Frodo is aware he’s basically going on a suicide mission, and the rest know that there’s only a slim chance their plan will even work. Gandalf describes the quest as a “fool’s hope”.

Hope within the story is often seen as a silly thing. How can Gandalf think one (or as we see, two) small Hobbits can sneak into a powerful being’s stronghold and destroy the source of his power, which corrupts everything it touches? Both Boromir and Denethor have this view. Boromir trusts only to the strength of Gondor’s military, and Denethor trusts only to his own mind.

Denethor gives us a poignant look at the effects of despair. He sees what is happening around him, and sees no hope. He gets to the point that he doesn’t even care about fighting to the end–he commits suicide, and almost takes Faramir with him. By relying only on himself, Denethor becomes overwhelmed by despair.

Several factors contribute to this. First, Denethor refuses to rely on other people. He sees them as foolish or against him, and thinks he alone has the intelligence to see what is happening. Second, Denethor is so enamored of his own intelligence that he wholeheartedly believes what he is seeing in the palantir, thinking he is too clever for Sauron to trick. Finally, Denethor thinks only of himself when he decides to go out “his own way”.* He would rather commit suicide than face possible defeat with his troops.

We can contrast Denethor with Theoden, who was also being manipulated by the enemy. Like Denethor, Theoden was convinced odds were against him, and the best thing to do was to isolate Rohan from the coming conflict. Wormtongue did his best to make Theoden believe he was simply too weak to carry on, and must rely wholly on him and his news and advice. Theoden was led to disregard others who were giving him different advice. However, unlike Denethor, Theoden’s driving force is not his own ego. Once he shakes off the manipulations of Wormtongue and Saruman, he is willing to make a final stand with his troops, and with Gondor, even to the bitter end. He does not see a way they can win, but he also does not give into despair and continues to have a “fool’s hope” that somehow, Sauron will be defeated.

While it’s certainly not a one-to-one analogy, we can see many of these variables playing out today. News sources and politics both thrive on fear, driving a wedge between the different groups in our country. The other side is always suspect, always with shady motives and naturally less empathy or concern than oneself. Like Denethor, we think we are clever enough to have tapped into the true facts. Like Theoden, we refuse to listen to contrary opinions and advice.

However, these two also give us a way to address our problems. Do we give in to despair, go full Denethor and decide everything is going to wrack and ruin? Or will we, like Theoden, be prepared to stand up again, and maintain hope in a seemingly hopeless world?

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*Obviously people in real life considering suicide aren’t doing so out of sheer ego. These are very difficult times and the social distancing rules in place can make it harder to make connections and find assistance for mental health issues. If you are struggling please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Duality and Morality in Science Fiction

Moral dichotomy has long held a fascination for humanity. Perhaps this is related to our tendency to tribalism, but humans have been dividing things up between “good” and “evil”. Even in the days when good meant being a strong warrior that obliterated the enemy, there has still been this sense of duality.

So it’s not a surprise that speculative fiction has tackled this subject time and time again. I’m going to take a look at the different ways moral dichotomy has presented itself (or been deconstructed) in multiple famous stories.

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1. Evil!Kirk

I’m sure many people recall the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within”, where a transporter accident splits Kirk up into his passive good side and his active evil side. Good!Kirk struggles to make decisions, constantly waffling over whether or not what he will do will hurt someone or is the right call. Evil!Kirk goes straight for what he wants, whatever he wants. However, it becomes clear that they cannot survive without one another, and not just literally. Figuratively, Good!Kirk simply can’t handle real life without his more ruthless side driving him, and Evil!Kirk can’t restrain himself enough to move past his own selfish impulses. In the end, Good!Kirk embraces his “evil” half as they are put back together.

(This sound familiar, fellow Dark Crystal fans?)

In this, we see a combination of traditional Western good vs. evil along with the Taoist conception of yin and yang. Kirk’s good and evil halves also correlate to his passive impulses and his active impulses. His drive to achieve and his desire for peace and harmony. Yet, divided, they are ineffective. One must have this balance in order to act morally. We also see Kirk literally embracing his darker half, accepting these impulses of his as something he must deal with and use rather than repress.

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2. The Dark Crystal

Credit to ohfugecannada.tumblr.com

(Credit to ohfugecannada.tumblr.com)

As I noted above, The Dark Crystal has a very similar conceit to “The Enemy Within”. The UrSkeks are split into two separate species, the Urru and the Skeksis, which represent the passive good side and the active evil side. Based on the expanded universe, it becomes clear that the Skeksis’ impulse control decreases as time goes on. Similarly, the Urru become increasingly passive and disengaged from the world, partly out of their fear of making things worse by interfering any further on Thra. The UrSkeks went the ancient aliens route and helped the Gelfling civilization thrive, and it seems the Skeksis, despite their selfish impulses, continued to do so for a time. However, because their main goal was their own aggrandizement, even this starts failing. The Urru had the patience and wisdom to know there was only so little they could do until the next Great Conjunction, but at the same time they withdrew from the world altogether, leaving things to get increasingly worse until the proper day.

In this, we see once again that neither side can truly live without the other. In fact, the Skeksis’ constant struggle for immortality becomes almost farcical in light of the fact that UrSkeks are most likely naturally very long-lived to immortal. (They appear to be energy beings–leave it to the self-righteous shinies to muck things up as usual.) However, instead of accepting restraint as the price for immortality, they want it all, leading to tragedy until the two halves can once again reunite.

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3. Star Wars

Star Wars presents us with another dichotomy, this one of something closer to classic good vs. evil. The Jedi strive for order and peace, the Sith for chaos and violence. Despite the attempts in the expanded universe and fan theories to make the morality more grey, it’s clear that this is a good vs. evil scenario. The Sith literally have a rule that an apprentice must kill their master. They use chaos and conflict as a means of strength, and very few of the Sith are acting out of some deep-seated philosophy. They want power and influence, and they will do whatever it takes to get it. Luke must face his own inner darkness in the cave, which appears as his own form wearing his father’s life support suit. Arguably the morality in Star Wars is closer to Buddhist concepts such as detachment. It is Luke’s protectiveness of his sister that nearly drives him to the dark side, and Anakin’s obsession with keeping Padme alive leads to his transformation into Darth Vader. On the other hand, the father-son love between Anakin and Luke defeat the Emperor and lead to Anakin’s redemption. In this, the good side is represented by harmony with others and with the universe, as well as with events happening. In this, good vs. evil strongly resembles unhealthy attachment vs. detachment.

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4. Babylon 5

On Babylon 5, the main conflict of the first four seasons presents us with what at first appears to be a straight dichotomy. The Vorlons, beings of light, strive to create order, peace, and harmony in the galaxy. They are presented to us in the form of Kosh, acting as a bit of a trickster mentor who nonetheless cares for the protagonists to the point of sacrificing himself. The Shadows, on the other hand, are depicted collectively. They are giant creepy spider-mantis things, with giant creepy spider-mantis ships, and they obliterate the ships of the Younger Races. They act as devil figures, tempting Londo into committing atrocities (finding G’Kar’s motivations too selfless to be useful), and murder Kosh in his quarters when he finally takes a stand against them.

Then Ulkesh (known on-screen as Kosh 2) arrives, and it turns out that Kosh was basically their token weirdo. Vorlons are rigidly comformist, authoritarian, and often harsh. We then find out that despite Kosh’s good intentions, he himself has been rather manipulative this whole time, acting more as a Dumbledore figure, often putting our heroes in danger to test them (most obviously done with the Inquisitor episode). The Vorlons have genetically altered the Younger Races to see them as the beings of light of their various cultures, and they’re totally willing to destroy entire planets because one of the Shadows or their agents have been on them.

We find out that this has all been a very long philosophical dispute between the two races. Shadows believe chaos and conflict will strengthen the Younger Races (or weed out the weaker ones), while the Vorlons believe that order is the way the galaxy will grow. In the end, both become rigid about their own ideologies, and attempt to force them on the Younger Races. And in the end, both wind up being right, as the conflict strengthens the Younger Races, but also leads them to allying together and working in peace to rid the galaxy of the First Ones’ threat.

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So what does all this tell us? Merely that humanity has always been intrigued by morality and what that entails. Each of the works listed above takes a different tack at understanding the concepts of good and evil, and how much grey area there is that exists within the two. Whether it’s a straightforward dichotomy, such as Star Wars, or the philosophical complexity of Babylon 5, it acts as a mirror to our own struggles to learn what makes a good person.

Book Review: American Rebels by Nina Sankovitch

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Well, I finally finished this. For the record, it wasn’t that the book was uninteresting, but quaranbrain and then adjusting to the changes when I returned to work took away brainpower.

American Rebels follows the lives of the Hancock, Quincy, and Adam families in the lead-up to the American revolution. It shows the main players when they were younger, and how their early friendship led them to allying with each other as the tensions between England and the colonies heated up. Their exchange of ideas helped them fully develop, from the early rumblings when everyone was writing pamphlets against taxes to the actual writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Sankovitch does an excellent job of bringing these historical figures to life, from Hancock, a shrewd and sometimes calculating businessman, to John Adams, constantly torn between his love of a quiet, domestic life and a desperate desire to prove himself as an equal of his wealthier friends. I had never read detailed biographies of any of them, so I was on edge during certain parts of the book, wishing that Josiah Quincy Jr. would make it back home from England before tuberculosis overtook him, feeling the pressure of running a farm and a refuge alone along with Abigail Adams, and the awful tension as friends and family began to divide more and more as the conflicts between the British soldiers and American citizens heated up.

I also appreciated that Sankovitch took a fairly objective look at certain conflicts, such as the Boston massacre. Colonists were not free from acting with unnecessary violence, although people like Hancock and Adams tried to hold them back. She also showed the pain that Loyalists felt in being forced to choose between their home and their king.

One thing I noticed is that this, on the surface, has the same sort of goal as the book Franklin & Washington which I read earlier. Both books try to show how the interactions and friendships between certain early Americans helped fuel and push the revolution forward. However, with the latter book it was quite a stretch, as Franklin and Washington did not interact that much before the war. This book, however, does it well. Sankovitch didn’t have to try and force a personal connection; it was already there.

It was a fantastic read, and I learned much that I hadn’t known before. For a full look at the revolution, I would read this, with its focus on some of the main Americans involved, along with the books The Glorious Cause and The Seeds of Discontent. It’s a great look at the founding of our country and the men and women who helped push us to independence.

Agency and Abuse: Comparing the Protagonists of Mansfield Park, Rebecca, and Jane Eyre

When making the poor life choice of reading through the comments section of the Rebecca reviews on Goodreads, I noticed a bit of a pattern in the reviews. Many of them absolutely hated the protagonist, specifically because she didn’t stand up for herself. This is not a new sort of comment; I’ve seen the same thing on Mansfield Park reviews.

This attitude is somewhat concerning. It’s said that reading widely should make one more empathetic, but in these specific cases it has the opposite effect. And that is concerning because this is the same kind of attitude often displayed toward real life abuse victims.

I’m not saying that everyone who holds this opinion of the two characters is liable to treat real life abuse victims this way; for some, it may be frustration with the character as a character. But, the parallels are there. In any case as readers we should examine our responses to certain characters and question why we have them. They may reveal a mere critical attitude toward a book’s structure or character arcs, or they may reveal something deeper.

One thing I did realize, however, is that we don’t get this same response to Jane Eyre. And it’s obvious why: unlike the other two characters, Jane Eyre still has far more agency.

On the surface, their backstories are similar. All three characters, Fanny, Jane, and Daphne (I’m going with the fan theory that the narrator of Rebecca is supposed to be named Daphne) come from abusive homes. Though it isn’t detailed, Fanny was apparently the unfavorite of her immediate family. It’s said her brother often advocated for her to her mother, and at one point she (rather tragically) thinks that her nervous disposition must have “alienated love”. In the Mansfield family, Lady Bertram treats Fanny more like her favorite dog, Sir Thomas clearly has no idea how to talk to nervous children, and Mrs. Norris makes sure Fanny is told every single day that she is worthless.

While we know little of Daphne’s past life, we do know that she is treated very condescendingly by her employer. This sort of abuse is very understated. Her employer makes every effort to make her feel small while pretending to be a perfectly nice employer. This also has the effect of making others disrespect Daphne as well. Once she becomes Mrs. de Winter, Maxim veers between “fondly” calling her a “little fool” and scolding her like a child if she does or asks something he doesn’t like. And, of course, Mrs. Danvers (along with most of the staff) ensures Daphne always feels like a consolation prize, and eventually tries to drive her to suicide. Except for the last, these incidents aren’t as overtly abusive, but can still have a terrible effect on people.

Jane Eyre, of course, has the most outright abusive background. She is both physically and verbally abused, both when she lives with her aunt and when she is in Lowood.

The differences begin with personality. Both Fanny and Daphne are timid people. To them, a stern word can be as painful as actually being struck, and both live largely within their own minds. Jane, on the other hand, is a much more grounded person. Perhaps, too, the type of abuse has caused a different reaction. With the first two characters, they are subtly and not-so-subtly told by society they should be grateful for whatever they get, because they are nothing. With Jane, on the other hand, the abuse is so blatant that an independent personality will most likely rebel against it as soon as they are able. Jane is fully aware that being beaten by her cousin is wrong. She doesn’t have to question her perceptions or believe that she is being “ungrateful” or overly sensitive; wrong is wrong.

Perhaps this is, ironically, why readers struggle with characters like Fanny and Daphne but adore Jane Eyre. Society, and the legal system, still struggle with the idea that abuse can be a much more subtle, sinister process than mere beating. Because it is not so blatant, people wonder why these characters have low self-esteem or struggle to act in tense situations. Jane is a highly principled character, and the abuse she goes through is so obviously evil that she stands up to it. For Fanny, it took almost two-thirds of the book to start recognizing that she doesn’t deserve to be treated the way she is. For Daphne, it’s almost the end when she finally stands up for herself.

I’ve mentioned it before, but our culture seems to veer wildly between people expecting others to cater to their sensibilities, and people who think saying “suck it up” will magically make another person develop a totally different personality. This is where reading different experiences comes in. As a shy introvert who has much more in common with Fanny and Daphne than most other book characters, reading about someone more confident, or even recklessly confident, helps me understand those types of people in real life, even when they say things that unintentionally hurt me. And shy characters can help those with self-confidence see and understand those people in real life, and know what to do that won’t cause them to retreat further but encourage them in their own growth.

Book Review: Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery

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It’s been 15 years since Anne and Gilbert married, and now they have a whole passel of children to manage. This book is focused much more on the kids, as well as the neighboring Meredith children, whose extremely absent-minded father and extremely aged grandmother mean they’re pretty much left to their own devices.

I actually rather enjoyed this. It works well with the continuing theme of “most kids aren’t actively trying to be evil, they’re just learning as they grow”. Montgomery did a good job of depicting the extremely meddlesome, gossiping busybodies of the town that don’t seem to understand how kids work. (It’s funny, how often people totally forget what it was like to be a child, to the point that they can’t comprehend them at all.) The Meredith children are extremely normal children, they just have absolutely no guidance. Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is not “dad needs to get his nose out of his books and get out of his own head long enough to raise his children”, but “dad needs to get married so a wife can manage them”. To be fair, there is something to be said about having the influence of a mother figure, but it’s rather tragic that only a new love interest was able to get Dr. Meredith out of his own head, rather than the needs of the children he says he loves. Even when they decide they need to raise themselves by “punishing” themselves. Despite these “punishments” being physically draining to the point of two children nearly dying, Dr. Meredith still doesn’t take an active role in his kids’ lives. I get that he is still grieving, but kids still need to be cared for regardless of what’s happening.

That said, I did enjoy the kids’ antics, especially the scrapes Faith gets herself into while actively trying to get out of her last scrape. It’s a shame we didn’t see her interact with Anne more, since Anne stated near the beginning that Faith sounded a lot like her when she was younger.

Then there’s Mary Vance. I actually liked her at first. Montgomery sadly did a good job of capturing the psychology of a child who has been abused her whole life. Mary wants to be grateful, but is so used to abuse that she sometimes pushes people away. You see this a lot in abuse victims, who are scared of getting too close.

Unfortunately, this rather intriguing psychology takes a turn when Miss Cornelia adopts Mary. Mary suddenly becomes the most priggish, lecturing character in the entire book, and it’s wildly obnoxious. She constantly refers to the Meredith children as “you kids” as though she isn’t around their age, and is condescending whenever the town starts gossiping about them again. It seems strange that Miss Cornelia would raise a child to be this way, when she was, before this book, one of the most common-sense characters. But she too suddenly starts acting rather out of character and constantly frets about appearances, which she never did before.

Probably the most poignant parts of the story were the ones where Montgomery hinted at the coming world war, and how much their lives would be altered in a few short years. It gave me the same bittersweet feeling I get when I read actual history: you can read so much about these lives, but know that they have already ended. You see these kids’ idyllic childhood and know that it’s going to end in fire and ruin.