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The Black Gate is Closed

Katie

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Tolkien likes borders. I suppose you have to like them, as a fantasy author, otherwise you’d never find the patience to draw up the map. You’d swiftly become bored with all those stories about people who step through an gate in the wood and fall into Faerie, or people who pay the toll to take a ferry across a river and end up in a different world.

Crossing a border happens often in The Lord of the Rings: Sam leaving The Shire for the first time, the hobbits going under the hedge in Buckland to enter into the Old Forest, the crossing the Celebrant to reach Lothlórien, and even Aragorn and Company simply first crossing over into Rohan. This seems to be what’s going to happen again here, as our group approaches the Black Gate. The first sentence of the chapter states that “before the next day dawned their journey to Mordor was over.” It’s… not, quite, and you could argue that a lot of this chapter rehashes what came before. However, the arrival at the Black Gate serves as an emotional fulcrum for both Frodo and Gollum, prompting decisions that shape the rest of the narrative.

Frodo at the Black Gate

“I did,” said Frodo. His face was grim and set, but resolute. He was filthy, haggard, and pinched with weariness, but he cowered no longer, and his eyes were clear. “I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefore I shall go this way. I do no ask anyone to come with me.”

This is the first time Frodo speaks in “The Black Gate Opens,” and it’s startling. It’s a big step away from his behavior in the marshes where he was near silent, dragged down by the weight of his burden and increasingly aware of a deadly gaze ready to pin him to the spot. It’s nice to see Frodo suffering less. At the same time, his new attitude isn’t derived from hope but the realization that his quest is finally over. “I am commanded to go to the land of Mordor, and therefore I shall go,” says Frodo. “If there is only one way, then I shall take it. What comes after must come.” It’s a resoluteness built on certainty, a certainty built on inevitability.

His renewed clarity stems from the fact that Frodo believes he’s reached the point where there aren’t any more choices to make. He’ll try to get through the Black Gate. If he does, he does. Then he’ll take it from there. It’s something that Sam realizes immediately and – like last chapter – does not try to talk him out of, or provide him with any false hope:

Sam said nothing. The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless. And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed. Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all this way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him.

Frodo’s Choice

Of course, Frodo isn’t given much time to relax with his clarity of mind . Sméagol/Gollum provides him with another choice, as impossible as all the rest. Throughout his journey, Frodo has been remarkably light on the self-pity (no joke, guys, I would have felt sorry for myself every single step). He slides close to it here, wondering why Gandalf’s guidance and advice had been taken from him so early. But he never sinks into it. He comes to the conclusion that it’s not a choice with a right answer, a choice that anyone could make based on wisdom and sound judgement. It’s simply a choice.

And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice?

We never get a direct insight into how Frodo makes his choice. It’s interesting though that he chooses to follow Gollum’s ominous-sounding path right after witnessing Sam sing about oliphaunts, and then talk about them with Sméagol. It’s also interesting that Frodo frees himself from indecision with a laugh—right around the time that, off to the west, Gandalf laughs to free himself from the vestiges of Saruman’s voice.

It’s never stated explicitly, but it’s hard for me to read this section and interpret Frodo as choosing the more hopeful path. I mean, it’s not that hopeful – Gollum is being openly shady in his description of it, and his answer to whether his secret path was guarded is to ignore the question and until finally doing the equivalent of throwing up is hands and yelling, “yeah, PROBABLY.” Attempting to infiltrate the Black Gate would be a suicide mission. In turning away from it with a laugh, Frodo is embracing the reality of having to endure more pain and uncertainty for the improbable hope that it will lead to a better end.

Gollum at the Black Gate

Gollum, of course, is in the inverse situation. While Frodo for a moment seems to be free from further choice, Gollum’s choice becomes impossible to postpone. He fears the Ring falling into the hands of Sauron at least as much as Frodo does, and he fears it more viscerally. “Don’t take the Precious to Him!” he says. “He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.” It’s interesting to see here, too, that Gollum bestows Important Capital Letters not only on the Ring, but also on Sauron. He’s standing right on the border with the land where he underwent what we can assume was some terrible trauma (at one point he says that Sauron’s hand only has four fingers, but “they are enough”). He doesn’t want the Ring to return to it, and he has only a final chance to stop it.

Gollum’s first attempts to do so are rather pitiful. Before he suggests Cirith Ungol as an option, he makes the vague, half-hearted suggestion that Frodo simply give the Ring to him, and go away to “nice places” and not worry about it anymore. Even Gollum doesn’t seem fully convinced that it will work. He only has one real path to take (as Frodo assumes he himself does), but he doesn’t yet want to do it. He doesn’t want to send his master into a spider cave and doesn’t want him to be endangered. So he tries something else, a nebulous, unconvincing proposal to just adopt the Ring and let everyone live happily ever after. But when Frodo states resolutely that he will go into Mordor with it, no matter what, Gollum panics and admits that there is “another way” (another, orc-and-spider-filled way). It was where his choice was heading from the start.

You Will Never Get it Back

When Gollum offers up this choice, things go mentally downhill rather quickly for him. At first he gets a stern warning from Good Cop Frodo (even Bad Cop Sam is approving of his style):

“Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol, you said. Do not say that again. Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back.”

Frodo then goes on to promise that if Gollum were to try to take the Ring, Frodo would put it on and use it first (in a close foreshadowing of the actual end of “Mount Doom”). It’s an awful moment for Gollum, and he collapses into an “abashed and terrified” mess. It’s hard to know if it’s because of Frodo’s closing threat or the stark repetition: “You will never get it back.” The speech is a telling moment for Frodo as well. As far as I can remember, this is Frodo’s first suggestion that he would be willing to put on the Ring and to use it against someone else. It’s hard for me to tell at this point how much of a hold it has over Frodo, which is part of what makes this moment so frightening. It’s hard to know how much of his speech to Gollum comes from personal experience (the sense of being twisted, perhaps) or from his own fears (you will never get it back).

gate

The Easterlings

Now for a somewhat off-topic discussion. While The Lord of the Rings has not been maliciously racist, “The Black Gate Opens” continues the trend of unfortunate racial connotations. I’m not convinced that Sauron’s supporters marching into Mordor are designed to be any particular ethnic group, but they do read like an amalgamation of traits that a white Englishman in the early 20th century would use to describe non-Europeans.

“They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black, with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel, wicked men they look.”

That’s not great, and at best it’s a rather orientalist view of foreignness. At worst, we’re left with the notion that one of the very few non-European peoples in the story were either (a) dim enough to being unquestioningly duped by Sauron, (b) too weak to mount a resistance, or (c) totally on board with Sauron’s whole vibe.

This would be less a problem, of course, had Tolkien not associated most of his heroes with whiteness and fairness. Hobbits are perhaps an exception. As far as I recall hobbit skin tone is only related to the reader as various shades of brown, and the hobbits with the darker skin are described as far more numerous. But even in that scenario, we run into problems. Frodo, for example, is frequently described as being fairer than most of his hobbit brethren. His fairness also tends to be correlated to an inner nobility and moral strength. It’s a relatively small part of Tolkien’s overall thought, I’d say, but an unfortunate one.

Final Comments

  • Gollum’s insistence that he did escape from Mordor on his own was very sad, to me. “I did escape, all by my poor self. Indeed I was told to seek for the Precious; and I have searched and searched, of course I have. But not for the Black One. The Precious was ours, it was mine, I tell you. I did escape.” While I’m sure it was not intended this way at all by Frodo and Sam – the questions they were asking were important ones to ask – Gollum seems to have interpreted it as an attack on his agency in escaping a place he views with deep-seated fear.
  • This chapter is particularly adept with the foreshadowing. When Frodo is disappointed to discover that it’s not Gondor marching on the Black Gate, he compares the imaginary soldiers as “risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valor long passed away.” We have quite a few chapters to go until Aragorn reaches the Paths of the Dead, but chronologically it’s only about two days away.
  • Frodo’s reference to the Trees of Silver and Gold (Laurelin and Telperion) is another nice reference. Additonally, Shelob—whose unstated presence hovers over this chapter—is the last descendant of Ungoliant, the spider-darkness-monster (?) that destroyed the two trees.
  • Sméagol’s insistence that he doesn’t want oliphaunts to even exist again walks the funny/sad line well. “No, no oliphaunts,” said Gollum. “Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be.” Poor Sméagol has been having a tough time, so I can understand not wanting to have to deal with war elephants, but the extent to which he escalates things made me laugh a little.
  • I loved this: “He said: we’ll go to the Gate, and then we’ll see. And we do see. O yes, my precious, we do see. Sméagol knew hobbits could not go this way. O yes, Sméagol knew.”
    “Then what the plague did you bring us here for?” said Sam.
    Never change, Sam.
  • Prose Prize: It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. I like this so much, both as a sentence and with the following acknowledgment that kindness isn’t the equivalent of naivete.
  • Tolkien’s Wanton Cruelty to Innocent Punctuation Marks (sponsored by Mytly): A tough inaugural chapter all things considered. There are boatloads of semicolons, but I wasn’t able to catch any of the rarer three-in-one-sentence uses. At one point he uses a semicolon in three of four consecutive sentences. If we expand our scope, though, to Tolkien’s general language brutality, a clear winner emerges. Tolkien’s use of “amidmost” on the first page of the chapter, to designate the Sea of Nurnen that is presumably… most amid Mordor, is something that I both hate and love. Calm down, J.R.R.
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien was kind enough to build this one in for me! Thanks, buddy! As noted in the chapter, Gandalf and the Fellowship 2.0 are speaking to Saruman at Isengard. And Pippin’s palms are starting to get itchy.
  • Guys, it’s almost Faramir time.

All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of the Black Gate is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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Lucky 7 Is A Queer Cyberpunk Thriller Unlike Any Other

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Lucky 7, written by 2016 Rainbow Award Winner Rae D. Magdon and published by Desert Palm Press, is a cyberpunk tale told through the first-person perspectives of its protagonists, and eventual lovers, Elena Nevares, a latinx bisexual hacker from Mexico City, and Sasha Young, a black sapphic handler born in America but naturalized in Russia. They’re joined by a misfit team and ad-hoc family of other specialists that cover just about every other angle of queerness and race under the sun as they unearth a conspiracy that connects far too close to home. Also they fight a virtual dragon.

It is, in short, a cyberpunk narrative unlike any other, though not for the reasons you think. But we’ll circle back to that. Also it’s extremely sexually explicit, so take that into account if it’s not your cup of tea. That being said, every instance of intimacy is wonderfully characterizing for both parties as well as deeply evocative. What I’m saying is that it’s not just shameless smut; there’s a purpose for it, just like pretty much everything else in Lucky 7.

I’m entirely sure if this is common knowledge about me, but I love cyberpunk as a setting. It combines two of my favorite niche genres: noir and hard sci-fi. Cyberpunk stories typically live and die by the immersiveness of their settings, rather than the characters or even the plot itself. It’s most often a trip into a capitalist hellscape where governments have been rendered obsolete by mega-corporations and quite literally everything has been privatized. It’s an endlessly interesting logical extreme that continues to be explored every day in our lifetime, as it’s really not that far removed from our current reality.

The world’s current wage gap between what remains of the middle class and the hyper-rich is the largest it’s ever been, and you have mega corporations (Amazon, Disney, Comcast, Google…) buying up other companies for a legal monopoly of not only telecoms but content creation itself. While we don’t currently live in an industrial nightmare where most of Southern California has merged into one urban sprawl, it’s not hard to see the multitude of other ways society could evolve (or devolve, depending on your point of view) as corporate superpowers continue to consolidate power.

Which is where the conspiracies come in. The combination of the “hard boiled detective” being smashed together with a reality that is both so similar to and yet so unlike the classic noir tales of the 1940s just makes sense, even if the subsequent haymakers that are Blade Runner and 1995’s Ghost in the Shell hadn’t done the heavy lifting. It’s always about the human condition, what we define as alive, and how corruption and greed can feed on everyone regardless of origin.

Magdon’s Lucky 7 addresses all of those questions, and more, but what’s most remarkable about her book is that it does it in one of the most staunchly colorful cyberpunk settings I think I’ve ever witnessed. And I mean that in terms of both race and literal color. When you consider cyberpunk, you’re normally thinking of the grey, rainy, concrete and steel jungles that seem inescapable to the common citizen. Thanks to its 1940s noir roots, that’s by design. But it apparently doesn’t have to be.

Lucky 7 is set in June of 2065. The basic building blocks of the world are borrowed from the likes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell franchise, but the biggest deviations aren’t what you think they are at first glance. Yes, the book is filled to the brim with wonderfully and sincerely written queer characters of just about every color, creed, and identity to an extent that only Ghost in the Shell has toyed with, but there’s just something more to this that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.

We start our story in a mostly rural Siberia, where Elena meets Sasha, and then jump to the Amazon rainforest after an explosive prison break. It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, but in any cyberpunk, post-industrial nightmare you’ve ever heard of…was there ever still undeveloped land? Were there any parts of the world that hadn’t been paved over with concrete, let alone something as delicate and already-dying as the Amazon rainforest? I’m guessing no.

Blade Runner 2049 showed us forms of wilderness and rural areas, yes, but mostly in the form irradiated deserts and dying farmland. For something like the Amazon to even still exist in a world with hyper-population scales and a purely capitalist society isn’t something to be overlooked. It’s a message that lines up perfectly with one of the two main themes of the narrative: it’s not over yet. I don’t want to spoil exactly how deep this runs into the central character arcs and relationships, but let’s just say the inherently cyclical nature of that idea isn’t something that Magdon takes lightly.

The supporting cast of the book are introduced in a rather clever method. It’s something that I’d describe as “Bioware-esque” if it wasn’t so intrinsically tied into the narrative pacing. See, with some older Bioware games—specifically Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effectand Dragon Age: Origins—the protagonist is dropped into a situation and then chooses what order to recruit the rest of their party. Each quest or mission advances the narrative, regardless of order, and you learn more about a certain aspect of the world as you go.

This inevitably lead to some…strange narrative choices at the behest of player freedom, but here that basic idea is expanded into the context of “putting together a crew” for a heist. Or, rather, reuniting a crew after a job gone bad. Elena is our outsider point of view for the first half of the book, so each introduction to the supporting cast is already thick with complex interpersonal relationships, be it romantic, platonic or familial, with everyone else already belonging to the titular Lucky 7. I recognize it’s not a particularly unique method of introduction, but it’s always the execution that matters, and Magdon does it wonderfully.

Aside from the intentional coloring of the setting to differentiate itself from the pack as I’ve discussed above, this is the most intrinsic aspect of Lucky 7 that makes it work so well. And it’s also what makes the darkness surrounding it feel manageable, almost as if the crew itself is helping the reader cope with the plight and state of the world. The why of “it’s not over yet.” Cyberpunk is a genre that centers obsessively on the lone wolf protagonist. The hard boiled detective gets in over their head, getting shoved into a larger story that rarely has anything to do with them. They either die solving the crime, or get out alive more emotionally broken.

Lucky 7 goes out of its way to show the reader, again and again, that that’s not how this story is going to go. At one point in the book, Sasha reflects that “In this business, lone wolves don’t live long”. This is meant to be in direct contrast to Elena, who has repeatedly declared that she has no intention of bonding with this crew. She’s used to working alone, and she intends to stick to that. But that mentality of hers falls apart piece by piece as she realizes just how empty her life was doing this job alone.

In a world filled with betrayal, uninhibited greed and overwhelming oppression under the mega-corporate boot, a group like the Lucky 7 can still exist and even, to some extent, thrive together. Under a lesser writer, this wouldn’t work. The found family dynamic is a personal favorite of mine, but it’s something that shouldn’t fit within the confines of the cyberpunk genre. It should also go without saying that the corporate concept of “family” being called out like this is especially satisfying.

Not even Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, with its own fleshed out supporting cast, had any intention of connecting the members of Public Security Section 9 as anything other than comrades who could depend on one another. With literally one exception that may or may not be reciprocated (Batou’s feelings for Motoko), that’s all they ever are. Professionals who enjoy working with one another, and protect each other…but the personal relationships were always kept at juuuust enough arm’s length to keep them isolated on a deeper level.

But Magdon managed to make it happen without losing the core of the genre and what makes it so interesting to explore in the first place: the socio-economic structures of the world itself. Sure, the noir aspect was cool and important and it worked seamlessly in the classics, but it wasn’t until reading Lucky 7 that I realized how it may have been more of an expositionary device rather than an intrinsic aspect what defines cyberpunk.

As much as I praise the work Magdon has done here, that shouldn’t be mistaken for believing this to be a perfect story. The first few chapters have a bit of a rocky start to them, but not anywhere near to the point where it stopped me from wanting to see where Magdon went with this.

Her separation between virtual reality and reality is clear, and at times clever, but it’s really the characters that prop up this particular depiction and sell it. As great as those characters are, they can’t cover for everything. It also doesn’t help that the few times I was taken out of the story were due to decisions on Magdon’s part to use questionable language as in-universe slang. Using the words cyberspace, meatspace, and credits unironically in a novel that at no point attempts to dive into nostalgia territory for the classics feels out of place and genuinely confusing. To be frank, it feels antithetical to Magdon’s excellent subversions of other aspects of cyberpunk.

There are a lot of cool concepts brought up during the course of the story that aren’t explored as much as they, in my opinion, could be, and the world itself could use some more fleshing out on quite a few levels. For example, we’re introduced to Mexico City as having a lower-class population large enough to have its own cultural identity, implying that many other megacities have this trait as well. But we barely spend any time exploring that idea, and we don’t spend too much time in any these cities at all. It’s by and large mostly in remote areas that happen to have secret facilities. Again, this is something that the characters, relationships and dialog more than make up for, but it did stick out to me that the root of the cause for the crew’s existence at all, these massive megacities run by megacorps, aren’t as much of a focus.

All of that aside, though, Magdon has created something truly special with Lucky 7. It uproots cyberpunk genre conventions and subverts them masterfully, crafting a narrative where levity and betrayal are equally intrinsic, and the murky grey duplicitous nature of humanity is refracted through a prism, creating a spectrum of morality and color that is just as wide as its queerness. 

It’s a world, as you can plainly see, that I want to dive into and learn more about. It’s something I’d love to see expanded upon, and considering how many threads are left untied at the end of the story, I can’t imagine we won’t get a sequel. Or a series. Ideally a series. 

You can buy the ebook today from Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. If you’re more into paperbacks, Amazon offers that too!


Cover art by Rachel George

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Analysis

The Environment and Tolerance in Wolf Speaker

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Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Tamora Pierce’s Wolf Speaker starts with an acknowledgments section. Pierce included a staggering amount of animal behavior theory in this book. While some information is out of date, due to being published in 1994, it’s clear that Pierce cares about accuracy in her work. For a book largely based around various philosophical debates about humanity, showing her sources is important. Pierce spends Wolf Speaker talking about how humans interact with the environment. She also discusses how humans interact with each other and the ugly biases that everyone has. Finally, she talks about how we can change and outgrow those biases.

Spoilers for all of Pierce’s previous work.

What Happened In The Book?

The novel begins with Daine and Numair arriving at Dunlath, a fief in northern Tortall. Brokefang, the head of the Snowsdale wolf pack, summoned them to Dunlath to speak with the humans. King Jonathan allowed them to go, provided they search for a group of Riders and a unit of the army that disappeared near Dunlath. Daine discovers that the nobles are cutting down the forest and mining for opals.

The badger arrives and tells Daine that she can share the mind of an animal. Daine does so several times. When she leaves the animal, some aspect remains shortly with her system, e.g. her ears turn into bat ears. After Daine and Numair meet with Belden and Yolane, the nobles, for the first time, Numair says they have to leave the valley. They met several wizards aligned with Carthak at the castle.

Numair leaves Dunlath, but Daine stays to help Brokefang and the other wolves. They had changed because of her magic, and Daine feels responsible. A magical barrier goes up, separating the valley from everything else. The wolves steal from the logging camp, and Daine panics over their changed behavior. The mages send a Coldfang, an immortal that hunts thieves, after the wolves, and Daine stops it. With help from Tkaa, a basilisk.

Maura, Yolane’s half-sister, flees the castle and tells them that the nobles want to rebel against Jonathan. They’re selling the opals they mine to Carthak, which provides them with soldiers and mages.. Daine, Maura, and various animals and immortals, and villagers rebel against Yolane and Belden.

Daine fights another Coldfang, breaks the barrier, and hunts down Yolane in wolf shape. Maura takes control of the fief, and she promises to take advice from humans, animals, and immortals.

Eco-Feminism and The Environment

Environment and Humans

One of the major issues that Wolf Speaker covers is the relationship between humans and the natural world. The central conflict in this book is revealed because the wolves saw the issues that the humans were causing. As Brokefang says, “this spring men started cutting trees and digging holes without planting anything. He says they brought monsters and more humans there, and they are killing off the game. …they’re driving the deer and elk from the valley. If it isn’t stopped, the pack will starve,” (13). This, and the rest of the story, reads as a fairly stereotypical example of the sort of damage humans cause the environment. Pierce shows how humans take advantage of the environment, and she frames it as explicitly bad.

Pierce addresses the issues of deforestation and strip mining in a children’s novel. While it’s not an incredibly nuanced reading, considering the fact that it’s a young adult novel somewhat justifies that lack of nuance. With her novels, Pierce tries to show by example how we can be better people. But she frames her story around the issues she addresses, so it doesn’t sound too moralizing.

In addition to the initial problem of deforestation, Pierce also addresses pollution in this novel. The mages from Carthak, create a poison called Bloodrain. They plan to dump it in the river in order to defeat Alanna, and her forces. It’s a poison so powerful that one of them got a drop on her hand, and cut it off. It’ll kill everything that uses moisture from the river, and keep it barren for the next seven years. Again, it’s not a particularly nuanced depiction. However, it shows that Belden and Yolane are willing to kill an entire ecosystem for power. Sadly, that’s not incredibly inaccurate.

Humans and Animals

Another aspect that Pierce discusses is the relationship between humans and animals. We see two characters as foils in this regard. Daine, who knows animals though her magic. Maura, on the other hand, knows animals only through what gossip says.

Several times through the book, Maura is terrified of Daine’s animal companions. She flees in terror from bats. She believes the wolves will eat her. And always, she explains that, “Everybody says — ‘Everybody’s wrong.” (158). Daine then proceeds to explain that bats don’t fly into hair, or that wolves only hunt to eat, and they don’t eat humans. Through Maura, Pierce shows the importance of being properly educated about the environment and all it’s inhabitants.

Through the book, Daine is occasionally scared of the wolves. However, her fear comes from how she’s changed the wolves, rather than their natural behavior. The wolves steal axes from the logger and food from the humans for Daine and Maura. Daine panics both times about how they are more intelligent than normal wolves, seeing how her magic has changed their thoughts.

The most pertinent example is Brokefang. He licked a wound Daine received from the bandits while they were in Snowsdale. This changed him more than all the other wolves. “New thoughts came thick and fast now, more every day, and he did not understand them all.” (97). Daine’s magic changed Brokefang, so much that his mind works more like a humans’s than a wolfs. Because of the damage that did, Daine remains behind, to help heal some of it. While animals don’t change to this extent in the actual world, human behavior shapes theirs.

Tolerance and Cooperation

Daine and the Stormwings

A recurring theme in Wolf Speaker is the tense relationship between Daine and any Stormwings in the vicinity. After the events of the last book (and events alluded to between the books), Daine despises the entire species. She aims her crossbow at a group of Stormwings that fly overhead when she and Numair arrived at the valley. Numair stopped her from shooting, and suggested that she learn tolerance.

She proceeds to do so through the rest of the book. Maura proves to be a good influence there. Shortly after Maura joins Daine and the wolves, three Stormwings appear to return her home, because the Stormwings were concerned for her. Maura is friends with a specific Stormwing, Rikash, and he is fond of her in turn. Maura and Daine have several conversations about Stormwings, where Maura slowly convinces her that not all Stormwings are awful.

At the climax of the story, Daine runs into Rikash and more Stormwings again. She thinks:

Once she had wanted to kill every Stormwing she found, but was that still true? It seemed as if, ever since she had come here, someone was telling her that because she didn’t like a creature’s looks, it didn’t mean that creature was bad. She still didn’t like Stormwing looks, but … ‘I’d like to end this bloodshed, I think,’ … We don’t like each other, but you can’t go killing everyone you don’t like.”

Through the rest of the series, Daine never again makes the mistake of hating all creatures of a particular species, just the ones aligned against her. Through Daine’s hatred of Stormwings, and her subsequent change of heart, Pierce advocates for learning tolerance.

The Badger’s Plan

Two thirds of the way through the novel, the badger god reappears. He asks Daine what she thinks of Dunlath. She replies that it’s a nice place, for animals and for humans, and “even immortals, too, if they wanted to just live here and raise families.” (216). The badger then reveals that Brokefang’s call for help had divine inspiration. Daine was summoned to Dunlath for a godly experiment, she is to, “set this whole valley to rights, … shape a bridge between kindreds.” (217-8). The Badger explains that she is supposed to broker peace between humans, animals, and immortals in Dunlath.

This is something that Dunlath desperately needs. At the beginning of the book animals and humans are opposed. The nobles laugh Daine out of the castle when she brings the plight of the wolves up to the nobles. The wolves are preparing a war of attrition against the humans in retribution. The mages imprisoned a whole slew of hurroks (carnivorous winged horses), ogres, and Stormwings. They forced the ogres to mine for opals, and the hurroks and Stormwings to patrol the valley.

Through Daine, all three groups can communicate. She organizes the animals during the battle to reclaim Dunlath. She sends squirrels to free horses, and the wolves and a pack of wolf-hounds go with Maura. Daine and Iakoju (an escaped ogre) help the ogres rise up against their human oppressors. The villagers evacuate and help round up the soldiers employed by Belden and Yolane.

Maura ends up ending the book as the leader of the valley. She vows to listen not just to the humans, but the animals, when their opinions are translated by Tkaa, the basilisk. She gives the ogres half the valley for them to farm. Maura, with Daine’s initial assistance, fulfills the Badger’s plan for Dunlath.

Conclusion

In Wolf Speaker, Pierce tries to do many things. She demonstrates the relationship between the ecosystem and humans. She shows how important it is that we are educated about animals and the effects we have on the environment around us. In addition, she addresses the issue of biases and how we can, and should grow to overcome them. She advocates for different groups of people working together and living together in harmony. It may be idealistic, it may not be incredibly nuanced, but all of the messages she sends are important.


Image Courtesy of Atheneum

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Analysis

A Definitive Guide to ASOIAF Analysis

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A friend of mine recently finished George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), and she asked me if I had any recommendations for essays or podcasts focused on analysis/theory. My immediate response was, “OH BOY DO I.” Because that’s the kind of reader I am. I may not watch the show anymore, but I am an avid consumer of ASOIAF analysis.

If you’re brand new to the fandom or the world of ASOIAF analysis, finding a place to start can feel exhausting. There’s so much available, and not all of it may be good or scratch your specific analysis itch. Because of my particular interests and preferences—themes, character analysis, and mythological and/or symbolic interpretation—I’ve had to pick and choose my way through the analysis world. Many other readers have to do the same or give up because they don’t even know what they’re looking for.

So, if you’re as anxious for The Winds of Winter to come out as I am, share my same proclivities, and looking for a way to fill time, I give you my personal, definitive guide to ASOIAF theory and analysis.

7. Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire by BryndonBFish, Militant_Penguin, Nfriel, and SomethingLikeALawyer

“Battle of Westeros,” by Thomasz Jedruszek

This one is hit or miss for me, depending on the author. It was one of my first theory blogs, and one that I only occasionally revisit now because I’ve found others I like more. I also admit that I pretty much only read BryndonBFish’s work because I’m not that big of a fan of the other three contributors for various reasons. They’re not awful, just not my preferred approach or perspective.

Anyway, if you’re looking for essays on military strategy, political maneuverings, and various battlefield commanders, this is the place to go. BryndonBFish’s essay on the early evidence for Roose Bolton’s treachery brought me to the site, and it’s still one of my favorites when it comes Martin’s foreshadowing of the Red Wedding because of how subtle it is. I really like his speculative essays on the upcoming battle of Fire, battle of Ice, Daenerys’s destructive path, and Aegon’s military campaign. He has a couple of great character pieces on Tywin Lannister and Kevan Lannister, and how the latter doesn’t deserve his relatively good reputation. I also highly recommend his essay on Stannis’ flexibility, as it highlights an oft misunderstood characterization that many fans share with in-world characters.

Basically, if it has to do with war and military figures, start here.

6. Meditations on A Song of Ice and Fire by Cantuse

Ah, my first true love. I found Cantuse’ blog via BrendanBFish’s blog years ago and their essays are still some of my all-time favorites. Do you like Stannis Baratheon? I do, and this is the place to go for all things Stannis. Character analysis, plot analysis, predictions for TWOW. Even a thorough, and highly compelling, battle plan for the battle of Ice that puts even BryndonBFish’s series to shame. The whole series on Stannis is called the Mannifesto, and if you have a free weekend, you should read it. It will take you that long—it’s not called a manifesto for nothing—but it’s totally worth it.

There are some fascinating theories and character studies along the way. Like the spearwife Rowan being Mors Umber’s long-lost daughter, a Val/Jon wedding Jon may not even be aware of, or Theon being the author of the pink letter. There are even a couple of really tinfoil-y identity theories, like Mance being a descendent of Duncan Targaryen and Jenny of Oldstones. My favorite piece by far is their one on Robert Arryn’s sweetsleep addiction. I actually have to remind myself this theory isn’t confirmed in canon because it makes so much sense.

One of the other major emphases of the blog is prophecy: how it functions in Martin’s world, the characters most closely associated with it, and interpretation of some of the most famous prophecies. There’s a whole series on Rhaegar and prophecy that also includes a fascinating discussion of Mance, Jenny’s song, and the ghost of High Heart.

Unfortunately, Cantuse hasn’t produced anything new in over a year. However, what is there is analysis gold. I’ve read every essay Cantuse ever wrote. I may not agree with everything they say, but I always enjoy reading it.

5. Reread Projects

Some of the best character driven essays I’ve read about ASOIAF come out of reread projects. There are a lot of whole series rereads (some with online discussion groups or podcasts), but my favorite are single character arc rereads that focus on themes, symbolism, and character development. The Sansa reread project Pawn to Player: Rethinking Sansa is a must read, in my opinion. It’s a lot of information and there are dozens of excellent essays compiled by various Westeros.org users over months of work.

The table of contents on the forum is very well organized, but reading forum threads can still a lot to wade through and seem daunting. The project has its own website now, and I find it easier to navigate. I recommend starting with the sections on motherhood, women in power, courtly love, and the piece on Arya Stark under female influences.

Other rereads worth engaging in are the Quentyn (Prince Mud) and Arianne (Trial by Folly) rereads. Not least of which is because you will get to read our very own Kylie and Julia interacting back in their forum days.

4. ASOIAF Analysis by LadyGwynhyfvar

If you’re into Arthuriana (the fancy name for the legends of King Arthur) and courtly traditions, check out Lady Gwyn’s website. Her “Rethinking Arthurian Influences in ASOIAF” would be the place to start, then her series on different character parallels and inversions. She brings mythology, archetypes, and other literary parallels to bear on the text, so you can see just how complex the interweaving of various sources and inspirations are for Martin. She’s also a great resource for all things ‘Great Northern Conspiracy’ related, and that episode of her podcast is one I’ve listened to multiple times.

Speaking of which, she’s the cohost of the Radio Westeros podcast alongside Yolkboy, and I recommend checking that out as well. It’s not as deep of a dive as some of the other podcasts I listen to, and I don’t always agree with their takeaways for certain characters (like Catelyn), but it’s enjoyable. Most of their episodes are character based, which can be a great way to look a character’s arc across books, as well as theories associated with them, all at once. I really like their ‘myths and legends’ episodes, as well as their one on the Blackfyre conspiracy.

They also have fake ‘ads’ from Westeros, songs from the fandom, and other unique little tidbits scattered in. Their tone is light and non-judgmental, which is fabulous given how divisive this fandom can be. Even if they don’t agree with one of your favorite theories, they will always treat it with respect. All in all, a fun way to re-engage with characters and get caught up on the most relevant theories.

3. Ideas of Ice and Fire

Background Image is from the game Kingdom Under Fire 2.

What I love most about this series of YouTube videos is how it draws a lot of book lore into small, easily digestible videos. If you’re not into essays with word counts in the thousands but want to engage with theories about the origin of the White Walkers, Arya’s future, and the power of Melisandre’s ruby, for example, this is a good video series to check out. You can even listen while doing something else, though the pictures accompanying the videos are quite lovely.

This is also a good series to get into if you don’t feel like reading The World of Ice and Fire but want to know what information from it might be pertinent to ASOIAF. He has episodes on the origin of dragons, Asshai, Yi Ti and the Bloodstone Emperor from the Empire of the Dawn (remember this dude, he’ll come up in another podcast/essay series I really like), and more. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I always enjoy listening and walk away with something new to think about. There’s also some great Lovecraft lore thrown in, like this joint episode with Lucifer Means Lightbringer on mythical creatures in ASOIAF, or this one on Qohor.

It’s short, accessible, and you don’t need a lot of background or a long attention span to get something out of it. Plus, he has a soothing voice. He also has lots of videos about the Dune series, if you’re into that.

The first two entries represent my early ASOIAF analysis days. I was interested primarily in theories about plot elements and hidden character identities, as well as character arc predictions based on existing material. The middle three represent a middle-of-the-road approach that combines what I’d call more ‘traditional’ ASOIAF analysis with increasing levels of symbolic interpretation. These final two are “my wheel house.” They’re the pinnacle of everything I love about ASOIAF analysis: mythology and symbolism. This is where I live now, and you should join me. (One of us! One of us!)

2. Mythological Weave of A Song of Ice and Fire by SweetIceAndFireSunRay

SweetIceAndFireSunRay is one of the gems I’ve discovered only recently. I’m still working my way through her pieces, and so far, I love them. Her approach incorporates Greek and Norse mythology, parallelism, death and the maiden symbolism, and other forms of symbolic interpretation. The title of her blog comes from the fact that she conceives of the series like looking at a tapestry: at first, only the foreground characters seem to matter, but once you start to look at the background characters and seemingly minor details, you see how they all weave together to tell the main story.

“Once we understand and can make associations the tapestry gains layers of depth that sheds a new light on the whole. It does not change the story, but it makes it so much richer, renders clues, and interconnected.”

Her series on the underworld/cthonic cycle should be standard reading for anyone getting into mythological analysis. I especially love how she draws out just how much Martin likes to play with overlapping and subverting Greek mythological archetypes. Robert, Ned, and Stannis are much like Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon overthrowing a paranoid ruler (Aerys/Chronos) and setting up a new regime. (Robert and Zeus have so much in common it’s not even funny.) But at the same time, Rhaegar acts like Hades when he kidnaps the corn maiden Lyanna/Persephone. Yet instead of being brought back to the world of the living by Robert, Lyanna spends the rest of her (after)life in the underworld/crypts rather than cycling through life and death, as Persephone does.

It’s a unique approach and really lets Martin’s artistry shine because of how playful he is with these stories. He’s aware of the archetypes and myths and our expectations of them when we encounter characters who fit certain types. However, he never lets that familiarity lie. He both uses and subverts them at different times, so we’re always on our toes. SweetIceAndFireSunRay brings that tension out well in her pieces.

She also has a series on the ‘red stallion’ and horse-related scenes, one on bear imagery, and one on the various ‘ragtag teams of misfits’ in the series. I have yet to read those, but I assume they are as excellent as her chthonic cycle.

1. Mythical Astronomy of Ice and Fire by LuciferMeansLightbringer

This is it. This is the big one, my absolute favorite podcast/essay series ever. It’ll blow. your. mind. (At least I hope so.)

A lot of the essays or podcasts I listen to add a lot of unique info or a new perspective on a particular character or plot point. This one offers a completely different way to read the series. I listened to the first one on a whim, and I’m hooked. I can’t stop listening and chomp at the bit every month waiting for a new episode. I will never read the books the same way again. It both changes and makes sense of everything at the same time. It’s glorious.

So what is this podcast? Well, the underlying premise of Lucifer Means Lightbringer’s (LmL) perspective is that Martin is writing modern mythology and can be analyzed the way all mythology is: with a reference to astronomy, nature, and, especially, symbolism. The myths in ‘Planetos’ (like Azor Ahai, the Long Night, etc.) all refer to astronomical or natural phenomena that occurred in the distant past. These mythologized events also refer to human events along a “as above, so below” kind of logic that we frequently see in human mythology. For example, Christianity’s writings about Jesus draw on a lot of morning star mythology, which is based on observations of the planet Venus, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a real human being. LmL uses the same approach to Martin’s work. Azor Ahai could be both a real person, or category of people, and a mythologization of astronomical events.

Moreover, these in-universe myths and legends are highly symbolic and can be analyzed using the methods of interpretation one uses for actual human symbolic history found in our own myths. Almost every theorist I read acknowledges the mythological sources Martin draws from—Chinese, Norse, Celtic, Arthurian, Christian, Mithraic, etc. LmL takes it a step further to say that Martin weaves together the similar threads in each of these mythologies in purposeful ways to create an entirely new ‘mythology’ that underlies the entire series. Martin may draw on existing mythological archetypes (like Persephone) but he’s also creating his own, new archetypes and using them as the basis for his characters and events.

Thus, the main character action of the story can be interpreted through the lens of symbolic myth as well. Not just the myths Martin draws on from our world, but the myths he created within ASOIAF itself. Sansa is a very specific kind of moon maiden, for example, and one that corresponds to the symbolic myth/legend that conveys the astronomical event that lies behind the Long Night. I don’t want to give all of LmL’s theories away, because they’re breathtaking to listen to as he develops them. But I can give you the starting point:

“The main pattern of the astronomy theory on which this page is founded is that of the sun destroying the moon with a comet, followed by that moon raining down meteors on Planetos to cause the Long Night.”

And from there, we get weirwood goddesses, green zombies, moons of ice and fire, and a whole (starry) host of other amazing, thrilling, fascinating theories and analysis. Trust me, even if you don’t buy his premise, it will completely change how you read the books in the best possible way. I recommend starting with the above linked piece on modern mythology, then moving on to the Bloodstone Compendium. I listened in podcast order (starting with the oldest), so that’s what I’d recommend, as his analysis builds on itself.

All of LmL’s podcasts also exist as essays on his website, which I really appreciate. I like to listen to the podcast while I’m driving, crafting, or working around the house, but I can look up the essay later if I need to remember something. It’s a great format that I wish more ASOIAF theorists used. He also does monthly livestream Q&A sessions after he releases a podcast episode. Those are a lot of fun, and you get to ask him all the questions you might have after engaging with a new piece of his work, plus anything else you feel like. He also links a lot of related pieces and ones that formed his own theories, which is like bonus reading material if you’re into following how theories develop like I am.

Westeros.org Forum users Blue Tiger and Ravenous Reader interact with him a lot on westeros.org and have a lot of excellent additions, comments, tweaks, and expansions on his theories. They don’t have independent websites that I can find, but their essays on the forums are always stellar. Any time you see them in a forum or on Twitter, they’re worth paying attention to. (Ravenous Reader’s post on the ‘killing word’ is amazing.)

Check out Twitter, too, where you can find TheDragonLML, Blue Tiger, Ravenous Reader, and lots of other awesome theorists—Unchained, Branthebuilder, RustedRevolver, Septa Shaena, Joe Magician (who also has a pretty sweet ASOIAF theory website), and more!—interacting with each other over analysis and theory crafting. It’s a pretty active bunch, and even when I don’t participate, reading the threads is fascinating. And kind of intimidating given how smart and deep they are. But mostly fun and inspiring.

If you get nothing else out of this list, please go read/listen to Lucifer Means Lightbringer. I cannot recommend his work, and the community of amazing people who interact with him and his analysis/theories, enough. It’s so good.

What about you? What are your favorite ASOIAF theorists, essayists, podcasters, and YouTubers? Any good analysis I’m missing out on? Tell me in the comments!


Images Courtesy of Bantam Books, Fantasy Flight Games, Phantagram, and Lucifer Means Lightbringer

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