Creator Corner: Interview with Ji Strangeway, Author of Red as Blue
This past month has been unexpectedly refreshing creatively, and I’m so excited to offer you all another new installment of my Creator Corner series, where I sit down and talk with original content creators about their work. Fresh on the heels of my interview with writer, actor, and author of the graphic novel Journey to Gaytopia, I was given the opportunity to talk with Ji Strangeway, film director, writer, poet, and author of the soon-to-be-released hybrid graphic novel Red as Blue.
Her debut novel, Red as Blue is set in a fictional Colorado desert town in the 80s. The story follows 15-year-old June Lusparian, a Mexican-Armenian teen struggling to make sense of everything—her life, her sexuality, and her future. Touching on numerous settings and themes ranging from the LGBTQ community to the punk rock scene to the Reagan Era and high school shootings, the book features elements of the prose novel, screenplay, and graphic novel illustrations. It’s a story about finding hope and the transformational power of creativity in overcoming adversity. It’s about the power of love rather than the love of power. And a punk rock girl who falls in love with the cheerleader, who loves her back.
Gretchen: With all the options out there for telling stories, how did you decide on a graphic novel?
Ji: Well, it’s a hybrid novel, not a pure graphic novel. And the reason it came about is because even though I’m pretty well read, I’ve always hated reading. It’s really more of a mechanical problem than it is a content problem. I’ve always had a problem with staring at 100 to 300 thousand words. That never made sense to me, and I can totally relate to why a lot of people don’t like to read. People say our generation or the new generation hates reading, and they look down on us. But people didn’t figure out until social media got big that it has nothing to do with the fact that we hate reading; it’s just that our minds work differently. Our minds are much more fluid and visual and we need different things out of reading that books can’t always give to us.
The reason I created a hybrid is because I’ve always wanted to read a book the way I would like to read it. When I sat down and wanted to write this novel, I almost quit because I couldn’t write the way you’re ‘supposed to.’ So I said, fuck it, I’m just going to work with a really good editor who is also my friend, Michael Mann. He’s absolutely brilliant; he’s an author who’s taught creative writing and graduate studies in feminism and rhetoric. Michael helped me break rules in a way that’s not so experimental that it would be problematic for my first novel.
I thought about all the different mediums of writing that I love—I write screenplays, too—and I took stuff from screenplays, from prose novels, and from graphic novels. And I noticed that with every one of those mediums, there’s something about each one of them that I consider to be completely useless. I only took from them what I liked and everything else that didn’t work, I threw away. So that’s how my hybrid came about. It’s completely my own invention.
It’s all about efficiency for me. I don’t know if it’s because of my film background, but one of the things my directing teacher said to me was, “Get it up, get it in, and get it out.” I don’t know if that was meant to be pornographic, but it was intended for the economy of filmmaking. You get in there, you get your shot, and you move on because you have budget involved. That probably isn’t the best way to describe it because the efficiency isn’t about rushing the process, it’s just about ‘why do I have to suffer through this particular process of reading when there are other ways of doing things?’
G: Speaking of your process, how did you decide on which elements you wanted included in the story? Are there certain aspects you only did visually or only in prose, for example?
J: That part was actually very easy for me. It was intuitive, a lot of common sense. When I read novels, there are things about them that I really love, like that slow creative process of loving words, going deeply into that dream space where you can marinate and take your time. But there are things that are kind of masturbatory. Do I really need that much detail? Is it for you, the author, or is it for me, the reader? And that’s when the efficiency part kicks in for me.
There are other aspects of the rules of novel writing that weren’t really efficient. I don’t really want to figure out where we are in the story, location-wise. As a writer, I also don’t want to deal with describing to you how I left the room and ended up in a restaurant. It’s hard for me to do, and it really doesn’t matter. So, I took away the whole problem of interiors, exteriors, and location and just used a cyber-texting way of doing it efficiently, which is using the @ symbol and #. You know, like, “@Paradise High School #Cafeteria.” Right away you’re there.
That is actually borrowed from screenplays, but I didn’t want to write a screenplay so I created my own way of shifting locations.
The graphic novel part is very interesting to me. I love graphic novels, but I think I can only handle one page. It’s kind of visual overload. Just as a book can give you an overload of hundreds of thousands of words, the magic of looking at a picture kind of gets lost when the whole thing is images. I’m sure people who love comics would disagree, but I don’t read comics. I can’t read a page filled with images and thousands of word bubbles.
What I love about graphic novels is the imagery and ability to immerse yourself in an image that words fall short of. It was only after I sat down and drafted out the scenes that I looked at the images and realized that they are more like portals than they are explaining the story. You’re reading the novel, but then you take kind of an Alice in Wonderland-type excursion into an image, and it puts you deeper into the world I’m talking about. So, they’re used sparingly in places I thought were needed instead of doing a full-on graphic novel.
Those are some examples of the techniques I invented and used. Oh, I also want to mention one other thing about novels that I find utterly useless, which is that I don’t really see the point of “he said, she said, she replied, he explained.” I don’t see any purpose for that! That’s where screenwriting is brilliant, because you just have the name of the character and they talk. What’s beautiful about it is that you don’t have to know that the character is screaming. When an actor reads a screenplay, they imagine how a character would speak based on the words they say.
The whole experience altogether opens up your imagination and allows the reader to do more of the imagining, kind of like an actor would do when they read a screenplay. They’re doing more imagining and filling in the blanks rather than me having to say exactly what a character looks like when they talk. So when I do describe how someone looks, it’s because I really need you to know it!
That’s the kind of efficiency I’m talking about.
G: You’re giving your reader more agency to participate in the creative storytelling because they’re supplying their own interpretation of how things are said.
G: That’s really cool, I like that a lot. Speaking of what to include, the graphic novel is set in the 80s. Was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?
J: I’m curious why you asked me that question, and I really love that you asked it. So, I’m going to answer assuming I know why you asked it.
There is nothing more irritable to me than when I see a new book, movie, art exhibition, or anything coming out that is 1980s just to be hipster cool or trending. It seems like when you look back in history, people love doing things that are set 20 or 30 years previously because it’s ‘cooler.’ At times, it just seems to be a fashion statement. I don’t know why that is, but you can always tell when someone is telling a true story about a particular era or if they’re just trying to be cool. I just want to say, I’m not a hipster and I’m not hipster cool! I’m just real, or I like to think I am.
Red as Blue is born purely out of the 80s. It’s really important that I talk about the 80s because anything before the internet was the dark ages. Unless you were part of the ideal at the time—blonde, big boobs, drove a Mustang, ran with kind of a Barbie and Ken crowd—unless you had a Brady Bunch family and all those Americana-type things, you were invisible. You were excluded. You weren’t part of the American narrative. You were not considered American and because of that, it permitted a lot of hatred and prejudice.
That was the 1980s for me; it was completely dark. This story comes out of that darkness, and I think because it was so dark, it also brings a lot of the beauty with it. The strange beautiful light that came with the alternative music scene and the post-punk movement that completely shaped society up to today.
The 80s were so critical because we were fighting for our lives. Listening to music was war, because if you didn’t like Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams, you got shit for it. If you listened to Depeche Mode? You’re a fag. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it was. Music was war. The stuff that we were listening to that was alternative was a form of—we didn’t know it at the time because we didn’t think about it—but it really was pure activism. Not political, but we were living it. We were walking targets.
So, the way my book captures the 80s is more like a redemption of the 80s that never were for a lot of people.
G: Shifting the topic a little bit, what inspired you to start writing?
J: Survival. I’m Vietnamese and was born in Laos, so we didn’t come here by choice. We came here as refugees, running away from a violent war and being displaced. We came to this ‘America the beautiful shithole’ because it was the promised land, the dream, the place that refugees go to do be safe and welcomed. But it wasn’t that way at all. My whole life was filled with “Go back to where you come from” or “What are you eating, dog?” Every name that you can think of, I was called every single day. I was completely torn down and ripped apart every single day by the environment and even by the other people who were oppressed, the Mexicans. They were treated like second-class citizens in Colorado where I grew up.
Then, moving to the suburbs, I got the same thing from the white, Christian culture except they were more awful with it. They didn’t say it to your face, they said it behind your back. I said, “I can’t handle this.” If I’m going to have racism, I’d rather have someone punch me in the face than say something behind my back because that’s just a slow, gnawing cancer. It’s just so painful.
I started writing for survival. I didn’t write because I was a writer, I couldn’t even spell. I was almost completely illiterate to be honest. All the kids around me were speaking slang. That’s why the character in my novel says ‘ax’ [instead of ‘ask’]. It’s not because I was trying to make my character weird, it’s because that’s how we were talking. We really were ‘axing’ people stuff.
I started writing through journaling, and it was something that I did instinctively for survival. I didn’t realize it was saving my life. The type of journaling I did wasn’t diary writing: “Dear Diary, today I bought some spandex at the mall.” It’s not that. It was going so deep into yourself and healing yourself and having someone to talk to because there was no one else who could understand you because they weren’t having your experience. I wrote so much that I was filling up Mead notebooks; whether they were 80 or 120 pages, I’d fill them up both sides. I was furiously, furiously writing.
I continued writing, and it evolved into poetry, then it evolved into essays, then it evolved into creative writing. It carried me through everything I did, including filmmaking. Because a good story has to come from writing, it doesn’t come from actual filmmaking.
So, it’s really interesting because writing has always been with me even though since childhood, I’ve pretty much been a visual artist. It’s interesting that I’ve kind of ignored writing but it was actually always there, and it took me this long to realize that I’m not a bad writer.
G: Given your personal experiences, talk to me about the importance of representation of marginalized communities. How did that shape the story you tell in Red as Blue?
J: The first thing is, I grew up in the housing projects of Colorado. It’s really upsetting to me that for the longest time, even up to today when I tell people that I grew up in the ghetto, people laugh. They think that Colorado is Aspen, Telluride, and film festivals. And that’s exactly the problem. There aren’t enough stories talking about your environment, and if you don’t talk about your environment or don’t tell your story, you’re invisible.
To describe this environment that June lives in would disturb a lot of people who haven’t heard about the place that she lives in. They might think I’m making all this up. But for those who have grown up in these Chicago-kind of neighborhoods or Mexicans struggling to be American but not—and I was strangely a part of that environment—it’s real. People tend to think it of it as fiction. But, when you tell the stories of these kind of communities, it brings people together and it educates others. They realize, for example, that Colorado, at least the Colorado I grew up in, isn’t just skiing and sunshine.
G: What do you want to see more of when it comes to depicting queer and non-white characters?
J: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because when I’m writing about LGBT characters, I’m not thinking about race. I’m usually thinking about what makes a character different. I think the core of a lot of the problems we have in this world, and especially in America, in terms of accepting one another is the differences, regardless of what race or gender we are. For me, I’m interested in characters who have some form of ‘otherness.’ I guess in political terms the word is intersectionality, but I don’t even know how to spell that word, much less how to use it!
But I like otherness. And in terms of otherness, it doesn’t even matter what—if we’re black or white or gay or straight. When we see that otherness in a person and we connect to them, it opens up our consciousness and our hearts. And that’s the part in us that destroys stereotypes. When you meet someone and experience their otherness, you see them as a human being. Like when you read stories about a Mexican in a white world or a lesbian in a straight world, or even worse in a straight male-dominated world, you start to learn what it’s like to be that person. When you experience a person’s otherness, you relate to them no matter how different they appear on the outside. That otherness is more important than anything else for me when it comes to writing characters.
I love that my main character is Armenian-Mexican, but her otherness is that she’s also gay. And her real otherness, her true otherness, is that she’s real, innocent, and incorruptible. And the girl that she falls for, and that falls for her, is a white cheerleader. But her otherness is this beautiful capacity to see through skin, class, and gender; she’s a beautiful girl because of her otherness.
So, more important than creating non-white, LGBT characters is if you can do it and still show this otherness. That really is what I’m going for when I write characters.
G: Is there anything out there—in film, television, or print media—who, for you, is getting it right in one way or another?
G: Blunt answer, I like it! In what way?
J: Well, I have only myself to blame because I’m one of those artists that other people hate. I find artists, whether they be a filmmaker or a writer or a visual artist, hate this about me more than non-artists. I don’t keep up with what other people are doing, and I never have. They get really angry with me if I don’t know who a particular author is or filmmaker or painter.
I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world because I am one of those artists who gets everything from within. I really do. I’m not saying that to be special. I don’t see any reason to look at tons and tons of stuff and then emulate or imitate it. Everything that I do is coming largely out of my imagination and experiences. Anything I truly need to know about makes its way to me because it’s meant to be and is often a synchronicity.
So, I really am to blame for not knowing what’s good out there. That’s why I answered ‘no.’
G: So, it’s really more ‘I don’t know,’ rather than just ‘no.’
J: Yes! More like I don’t know. But I have to say that we live in a super diverse world, and there’s no one size that fits all. There’s not one lesbian film that fits all lesbians. I made a film, and a lot of lesbians probably can’t relate to it, because my films tend to be art films, more European style. They’re not the stuff you see on TV or mainstream filmmaking.
The only way you can get it right is to get it right in your niche market. And if that niche market catches fire, then it becomes accessible to the mainstream and to more people, which is great.
I don’t want to spend time naming names or bagging other people’s work, but one thing no one is getting right in terms of lesbian films is that I’m offended when men make lesbian films or even dare to write a lesbian story. That is so offensive to me, and they should be ashamed. People can have a lot of arguments around it, and it’s true, an author, director or anyone talented can make anything brilliant. But I haven’t examined this enough to be able to describe how sick it makes me feel. It’s just so offensive.
G: Red as Blue touches on the very sensitive topic of school shootings, which seems more relevant now than ever. What led you in that direction and why do you think it’s important to tell this story in media for teens and young adults?
J: First, I want to say that I thought it was really eerie that the Florida MSD shooting happened right when I started promoting the book. That was strange because for the longest time, I wanted to talk about homicidal teens and high school shootings somehow, in some way, in storytelling.
At the time that I was developing the story, nobody understood why the hell I was writing a teen love story with this stuff in it. I just felt like it needed to be told, but it needed to be told not as a focus. When people write or create stories about Columbine or high school shootings it’s always focused on the violence and on the mind of the killer. I’ve always felt that this isn’t the right way to go about it. The only way that we can heal society in terms of waking them up to why these things are happening is to open up their hearts. And that’s why it has to happen in love story.
The message I want to get across with the school shooting happens in the background of the society that my character June lives in. Ever since Columbine happened, I’ve been disturbed by high school shootings, and I sprinkled it in the story’s background in a way to show the societal cancer behind that shooting. When you look at the story and you see all the bullying, violence, hatred, and all these kids acting kind of Lord of the Flies in a 1980s way, and with the heavy white male patriarchal Christian consciousness going on in the time—all of that is the cancer going on underneath. That’s what is causing these kids to go berserk. I didn’t make it so I’m hitting you over the head with that message, but that’s really what I’m trying to show. To show the youth that they’re not the problem, society is the fucking problem.
And that’s what’s happening today. The youth are standing up because they didn’t have a voice back then. They were supposed to be obedient, listen to authority, and do what adults say. They didn’t have the media outlet to say anything and they were so used to being pacified, to shutting up and letting adults tell them about their experiences. So the cancer continued to grow. I was so pissed when I saw these so-called experts talk about the youth experience on the news. I was like, “Fuck you. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re the ones who caused these problems.”
Even back in the late 90s, if you dared to say that, you’d get shit for it. Nobody wanted to believe that religion was behind it or that society was fucked up. You couldn’t question authority. What’s happening now is that the cancer has grown so huge that it can’t be ignored anymore. Gun control is not the problem; gun control is just a massive, most obvious tumor. The kids—thank god for the kids. Social media has enabled them to take over and to show the adults that they didn’t know how to raise them. Basically, the kids have been raising the adults since Columbine because no one did shit for them.
That’s what I’m going for in this novel, and I’m so happy that in some strange way whatever is happening right is so true to what I dreamed of when I was writing this. The youth is so inspirational.
G: What do you hope teens reading your story walk away with?
J: How can I answer that without being kind of cheesy?
G: Be cheesy all you want!
J: I think I’ll stick with something simple and important to me since the time I made my short film “Nune.” It’s an adaptation and millennial version of Red as Blue in compacted form and takes place in modern times.
What I was going for there is the same thing I’m going for here with the book, which is that I want to show teens that no matter how dark, or how hard things are, or how invisible you feel, it is always worth holding onto your highest ideal. You need your highest ideal to save you and pull you through. In this story, the highest ideal was love for one another. And aside from that, for June, her highest ideal is to make music. For Beverly, her highest ideal is being good at what she does, which is sports.
But you have to have ideals. And if you don’t have them, you have to create them, because you have to hold onto something. That’s your life raft. That’s the part that gets you through, especially when the world gets fucked up and you have all these adults who don’t understand you and try to derail you and tell you you’re wrong about things when you know you’re right. You know you’re right when you’re holding onto that ideal.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
J: I’m just focused on promoting the book. I think I need to take a vacation and clear my mind to work on my next project, which will likely be a novel. More than likely it will be something transcendental, and probably female-centric and more than likely LGBT.
G: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me; I’m so excited for the release of Red as Blue!
J: Thanks for interviewing me, it’s been really cool!
Red as Blue comes out May 15th and will be sold at all major online retailers in both ebook and print. Preorder begins March 27th, which is just around the corner, so get ready to reserve your copy! You can also ask your local library or bookstore to order a copy.
Images Courtesy of IDKL Media and GYATRi Media; Artwork by: Juan Fleites
Tragedy in Lady Knight
The dedication to Lady Knight reads “To the people of New York City, I always knew the great sacrifice and kindness my neighbors are capable of, but now the rest of the country knows, too.” It’s a somber beginning to a book about the tragedy of war. Obviously, it talks about the events of 9/11, and the book was published in 2002, barely a year afterwards. It’s the grimmest of Pierce’s books so far, but like the dedication, it also shows the most kindness.
Spoilers for Pierces previous work. Warnings for mentions of abuse and the murder of children.
Creator Corner: An Interview with Author Lee Blauersouth
Do you like superheroes who are queer? Found family? Complicated family dynamics? If so, meet Lee Blauersouth, author of Secondhand Origin Stories, a book with all of the above, plus so much more. I met Lee at WisCon—at Alex Acks’ book release actually—and my conversations with them were some of the most interesting and fun I’ve had in a while. So of course, I just had to have an interview to learn more about their history as a writer, their book, and their experiences as a queer, disabled writer.
Gretchen: So, are you a lifer or a recent convert when it comes to writing? What inspired you to start writing?
Lee: I think I started writing fanfiction at around age 28. After several years of that, I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell really didn’t fit with the characters and universes I was drawing from in my fanfiction, so I decided to try my hand at original writing.
G: Speaking of original writing, your novel Secondhand Origin Stories is about superheroes, what made you want to write a superhero novel?
L: Is it awful if I say spite? I’ve ingested a lot of superhero stories in various formats over the years. And there were things I kept waiting for them to do that they just weren’t doing. So eventually I got fed up and wrote the queer, disability-focused, US systems-aware, superhero family drama I’d been craving.
G: Similarly, YA gets a lot of flak from some corners of the internet for being a ‘lesser’ genre (which is bullshit), what made you want to write YA rather than for another audience?
L: I don’t think I ever decided “I’m going to write YA” so much as that I wanted to write this specific story, which was best told through the points of view of the 4 teen characters. I’m not even sure “YA” is the most accurate descriptor, given that by the end of the book half the main characters are 18 years old. I just remember my late teens and early 20s as being this really complex, exciting, stressful time of my life and that’s just such an obvious source of story material. Especially in a genre traditionally obsessed with origin stories, transformations, and identities.
G: Absolutely. So with DC and Marvel churning out many superhero films and TV shows, do you think books still have a strong place in telling stories about superheroes?
L: I wouldn’t be writing them if I didn’t! Each medium has its strengths and drawbacks, but I love superhero novels because of how easily they let you slide into the characters thoughts, emotions, bodily experiences, and point of view. Prose is just great for getting into a character’s head for a super intimate experience. Since superheroes have traditionally been mainly represented in more visual mediums, I think there’s a hunger for this sort of point of view in the genre. The AO3 tags of Marvel and DC properties would certainly seem to suggest so, anyways.
G: Tell me about writing superhero stories as a queer person. What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face? Any unexpected blessings or silver linings?
L: I think being queer (and disabled) informs a lot of the way I think about bodies, changes to bodies, social vs private spaces, and family. I hope this gives my work a flavor and a focus that sets me apart from a lot of the mainstream superhero stories. On the other hand, it’s really hard to figure out how to work that into an elevator pitch when the expectation for superhero stories is much more action-packed.
G: How did your experience as a queer person influence the story you wanted to tell in Secondhand Origin Stories?
L: I think the biggest thing is the idea of found family. I’m one of those fortunate queer folks who’s very close to their family or origin—they’re very accepting (we’ve often commented that my wife is my mom’s favorite daughter). But even so, I have a fairly extensive queer found family, too.
I think found family narratives are a big part of why superhero team stories mean so much to so many queer folks. It feels homey and reassuring to have these characters we love living with found families. When I started writing Secondhand Origin Stories, my wife and I had just started the adoption process, so I was thinking a lot about what these found families look like when you take them out multiple generations. So, in my story you have a superhero team acting as found family, and then a 2nd generation of queer teenagers, building their own networks on top of that base.
G: You’re also a comic book artist, right? Tell us more about that!
L: I’ve been writing since my late 20s, but I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon. I actually have much more experience drawing than writing. I fell into comics specifically because above all, I love telling stories. Weirdly, I’ve never written a comic beyond one schmoopy autobio comic. My wife wrote all the other comics I’ve drawn!
And being able to make my own cover is pretty fun.
G: I wish I had that skill, for sure! On the topic of other projects, society likes to tell us that we can ‘have it all,’ but that can seem really hard to do these days. How do you balance your writing, drawing, work, and being a parent?
L: I just have to let every day be what it is. Some days I get to write or draw and some days I don’t. On the days I can’t, I try to at least give the story or project a little space in my brain- while I’m waiting between clients or driving or washing bottles. It helps keep my enthusiasm up so that when space does open up in my schedule, I’m more likely to feel ready to dive in.
But a lot of credit goes to my wife and my family (origin and found) for how much they help—especially with taking the baby for a while.
G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or the creative juices aren’t flowing?
L: There are a ton of stories that have inspired my creative works over the years, but when I need to work up my own creative energy I actually tend to go to nonfiction. Shows like “Abstract” or “Chef’s Table” are nonfiction shows about creators working in different mediums than me, but it’s all about their creative journeys and what inspires them to reach for excellence. I find their pre-recorded enthusiasm contagious.
G: I love that. So what’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
L: Right now my creative life is consumed by the sequel to Secondhand Origin Stories, which is going to be placed largely in a huge medical clinic in rural Minnesota. In my day-job life I’m a therapist who works with a lot of clients embroiled with the criminal justice system. That means I see a lot about the way the power structures of the medical world play out, and I intend to apply that to the world of superheroes.
G: That sounds exciting, inspiring, and challenging all at once. Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
The audiobook version of Secondhand Origin Stories will be coming soon! Follow me on Twitter for more updates and to see my drowning my sequel-writing pain in large mugs of tea: https://twitter.com/AmmoniteInk
G: Thanks again for chatting, Lee!
L: You’re welcome!
Secondhand Origin Stories is available for purchase online and in retail stores. Make sure you check out Lee’s website for more information and stay tuned for my review of Secondhand Origin Stories coming later this month!
Images Courtesy of Lee Blauersouth
The Last Debate and the Ending of an Age
“The Last Debate” is more like a “last discussion,” a “last planning meeting,” or perhaps a “last Gandalf monologue with which everyone is quickly on board.” This isn’t a criticism. A debate at this point would feel out of place. Our heroes have just been granted a miracle, an impossible reprieve. But what can you do next? What to do when you’ve been given a miracle, you’ve survived, but you simply immediately require a bigger one?
The whole chapter is tinged with a sense of giddiness, fear, hope, and confusion. People like Legolas look to a future beyond the war, but one that is different, uncertain, even frightening. Cut off from what had come before. Éomer’s eucatastrophe is built on the back of Gimli’s week of horror, a time he came barely bring himself to recall. And when the captains gather together to plan a course for what’s to come, they quickly agree that the most hopeful path is virtually indistinguishable from self-annihilation.
The Last Debate
“Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault,” Gandalf begins at the meeting of the captains. “The next will be greater.” It might come across as a narratively jarring moment for those uninitiated to Tolkien’s pacing. We’ve shifted quickly from a moment of narrative and emotional climax to one where… our heroes aren’t even entirely the protagonists anymore. Of course, they still are in a certain sense. But it’s still an interesting and rather bold move on Tolkien’s part to follow up such a vibrant, effective set piece as Pelennor Fields with its stars scrambling to fill a supporting role to quieter characters who have been off screen for so long.
From a thematic point of view, of course, this is essential. Tolkien’s physical battles, as important as they may be, are always secondary, always a corollary to something more key. We saw this last chapter when Aragorn gained renown in Minas Tirith for his healing powers rather than his ghost brigade, which he didn’t even both to bring. It would make little sense to have this strand of narrative culminate in a big battle before shifting over to Frodo and Sam, implying an equivalence in their missions despite the fact that they are playing dramatically different roles.
It’s also thematically on point in its skewering of Sauron’s lack of imagination. Sauron has always struck me as the sort to be quite proud of himself for being able to see the weaknesses in others. He probably thinks he’s a goddamn scholar of the human (elven/dwarven/you get it) condition because of his ability to see how others could fail. How intelligent! How edgy. Of course, Sauron’s certainty in himself is his own undoing (Aragorn’s certainty, hard-earned and open-minded, sounds nicely as its counterpoint). Non-Saurons are simply Lesser-Saurons: they would hide without the Ring or fight rashly with It. Playing into this isn’t quite prudence, as Gandalf notes. But it’s a solid play predicated on Sauron’s weakness and their own tentative, tottering strength.
Seen and Unseen
Now that we’ve gotten our spaghetti plate of plot threads all (relatively) back together, I’d be curious to see what everyone thinks about Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s adventure happening almost entirely off screen. Much like the Ents’ assault on Isengard, I do think that it loses a bit from being told in retrospect.
We hear Legolas and Gimli describe the moments they saw Aragorn really come into his own as an open leader of large numbers of people (and ghosts) rather than see it happen ourselves. We don’t see Legolas and Gimli for a very long time! And, from what snippets Tolkien does give us, we missed some very cool and atmospheric ghostiness. I was especially a fan of Gimli, ever the wordsmith, describing the army right before Aragorn released them. “The Shadow Host withdrew to the shore. There they stood silent, hardly to be seen, save for a red gleam in their eyes that caught the glare of the ships that were burning.”
But in the end I think it was a good choice to keep the focus away from Aragorn, and instead give us Eomer’s moment on the Pelennor. It’s a more thematically important moment than the taking of the fleet at Pelagir, despite the cool, ghostly atmosphere of the latter. I do sometimes wonder, though, at what story would have emerged had the choice been reversed.
Legolas, Gimli, and Future Might-Have-Beens
While there’s good stuff all over, I do have to say that my favorite part of the chapter, by a long shot, is simply Merry, Pippin, Legolas, and Gimli hanging out by the Houses of Healing. They’re among the funniest characters in The Lord of the Rings and they are very well-paired here. Merry and Pippin so often bring out the best and most honest in others, and the tension between Legolas’s and Gimli’s wildly disparate approaches to the world creates a nice sense of dynamism and tension. Tolkien delightfully plays it up almost to the point of parody as they enter Minas Tirith: “Legolas was fair of face beyond the measure of Men, and he sang an elven-song in a clear voice as he walked in the morning; but Gimli stalked beside him, stroking his beard and staring about him.”
Beyond that, though, their conversation also strikes a tenor that new in this section of The Lord of the Rings. Legolas and Gimli immediately begin discussing how, after the war, they could call on some good dwarven stonewrights to fix up shoddy Minas Tirith masonry and some trusty elves to plant some flowers and make the place less drab and lifeless. There’s a sense of hope, of the future, of time expanding outward and the world improving from what it currently is. But there’s also the sense of that hope being suddenly and somewhat truncated.
“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in the Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”
“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.
“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.
It’s clever that the first look at the future, of a post-Sauron world, comes from an elf, a dwarf, and two hobbits sitting around the citadel of Men that is likely to be the focal point of the future. It’s such an ambiguous future: obviously better than the immediate present, but still heavy with the sense of loss. The world will be Different. That’s very sad in a lot of ways, and a lot of people over the rest of the story are gonna be sad about it. But it’s not—or not necessarily—bad. This becomes even clearer when Legolas sees some seagulls, the Middle-earth brand of wildlife doomed to launch mid-life-crises for elves whose lives have no mid.
“Look!” he cried. “Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble in my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelagir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.”
I’ve always liked that Tolkien’s “dying world” (hmm) atmosphere is predicated not on death but on movement. The elves aren’t… disappearing, or dying, or Losing Their Magic. They are simply going somewhere else, to a new place. That is super sad in a lot of ways! I am a historian and I cry into my tea every morning that I can’t chill with medieval scholars in Timbuktu or scratch crass graffiti into Pompeiian walls with Roman bros or learn to paint pretty landscapes in Song China. Gimli gets it.
“Say not so!” said Gimli. “There are countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do. But if all the fair folk take to the Havens, it would be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay.”
But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Tolkien’s world is not a world of consistent linear decline. Things don’t start beautiful and get bad. I mean—they get bad a lot if you read The Silmarillion, but it is very hard to be kind in a world with so much beautiful jewelry up for grabs. But in the large scheme of things, for Tolkien, change is sad but fundamentally neutral: as in all things, it depends on the choices that you make. There’s ample space made for sadness and loss, but at its core I think it’s a rather optimistic way to view the world.
In any case, more on this later. I am very interested in Tolkien’s sense of nostalgia. But I think I’m going to save any more thoughts for a later chapter (or just a later essay in general). It’s more complicated and optimistic than it’s often painted to be, at any rate.
- “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” I didn’t quite fit this in anywhere above, but it’s a nice quote, kind and comforting. Except when you think of it for too long and realize that we’ve messed things up enough now that the weather, uh, is kind of ours to rule now only in the sense that we’ve made it so bad and its just always a hundred degrees now and oh my god WHAT HAVE WE—
- It was interesting to me that Denethor appeared so frequently in Gandalf’s sales pitch at the meeting of the captains. This works to re-emphasize the works thematic beats. But I also do wonder if it’s meant to indicate that Denethor is, simply put, still very much on Gandalf’s mind. Gandalf is very good at talking people away from despair, presenting them the choice and allowing them to make the hopeful one. Denethor not only rejected Gandalf’s philosophy, he did so bluntly and brutally. We never delve all that far into the deeper folds of Gandalf’s psyche, but I do wonder if it did a bit of a number on him.
- Speaking of Denethor—it continues to be a fun thought experiment to imagine how much more difficult the dude would have made everything for the last two chapters. You want a last debate? Denethor would have given you a last debate.
- I thought that Legolas’s comment about Tolkien at Pelagir to be intriguing: “In that hour I looked on Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself. Not for naught does Mordor fear him. But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien?” It’s another nice parallel / contrast between Aragorn and Sauron.
- Imrahil has always felt like an odd character to me. He feels very… illustrious, like a high medieval courtly knight in a story where those are in short supply. So when he calls Aragorn his liege lord and says that “his wish is to me a command” like some kind of Disney Prince, I was a half-way through a powerful, extended eye roll. But then my boy Imrahil steps in to be the voice of reason and reminds everyone that some heed should be given to prudence that that it’d be a shame to survive their maniac run at the Black Gate only to turn around and find the whole country burned and ravaged. Sorry, Imrahil, you’re good. Do your thing.
- I’m not sure it’s intentional or meaningful, but I was struck by the fact that when Gimli and Legolas are discussing how they can spiff up Minas Tirith, Gimli phrases it as “when” Aragorn comes into his own. Legolas phrases it as “if.”
- Prose Prize: For a while they walked and talked, rejoicing for a brief space in the peace and rest under the morning high up in the windy circles of the City. Then when Merry became weary, they wen and sat upon the wall with the greensward of the Houses of Healing behind them; and away southward before them was the Anduin glittering in the sun, as it flowed away, out of the sight of even Legolas. In the context of this chapter’s hope and uncertainty this has that that sense of a kind of lovely moment frozen in time before everything changes. You know the sort—if this made it into the film version it would have been shot during the golden hour.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Frodo and Sam walk, and keep walking. My poor little dudes.
Art Credits: The film still is from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. All other images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Lorenzo Daniele, Ted Nasmith, aegeri, and, introducing, the “Beleriand” article on The One Wiki to Rule them All.
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