Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
In 1974, amidst heartbreaks and personal disappointments, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote This Tower of Ashes. The short story would be published two years later on Analog Annual, an anthology designed to attract new readers to the famous science fiction magazine.
After re-reading this story a couple of times, I still don’t know what to make of it. Sometimes you know where a narrative is trying to go even if doesn’t quite take you there, but in this case I’m not even sure of the intended direction. It does, however, make sense with the themes that Martin was and is still exploring in his stories, making it an interesting addition to understanding his bibliography.
So let’s try to unpack this acid spider dream.
Cut-rate dreams and secondhand rainbows
The narrator and protagonist John Bowen lives isolated in the titular tower of ashes, a gloomy ruin in the mainland of Jamison’s World. Among the fantastic fauna of the mainland are the dream spiders, creatures whose poison can induce vivid hallucinations in their victims. Dream spider venom is also a popular drug, so John exchanges poison sacs with dealers for supplies. He has been living this way for a few years, but he recounts a story that happened shortly after he arrived in the tower.
John used to live in the city of Port Jamison with his partner Crystal, until she fell in love with Gerry. Unable to handle his feelings for the new couple, John self-exiled in the tower with his cat Squirrel. Crystal and Gerry find him a month later and try to convince him to return. The trio spends the night together, with John going back and forth between trying to win Crystal back and realizing it’s just a fantasy. He’s constantly clashing with Gerry, and this leads him to offer the couple a tour in the beautiful forests near his tower.
Things go especially wrong when he takes them to the spider-chasm to see dream spiders in their natural environment: Gerry accidentally slips and gets caught in the spider web, with dream spiders approaching both him and John. John flirts with the idea of not saving Gerry, but in the end choses to do so, at the expense of being bitten by a spider. Crystal and Gerry nurse him back to health, but leave shortly afterwards. Crystal had a different and possibly more accurate recollection of the events of that night, and it’s implied that John is slowly losing his grip on reality.
Down and sinking
In several aspects, This Tower of Ashes reminds me of The Second Kind of Loneliness. They’re similar stories in terms of tone, structure, themes, and characters.
Both stories have a male protagonist who lives in a self-imposed isolation in a surreal place. This isolation was largely motivated by a romantic rejection and the female figure is heavily idealized. We also know very little about the protagonist’s inner life besides this rejection, but their feelings on the matter are extensively explored.
Just as in Loneliness, the narrator of This Tower of Ashes has conflicted feelings about this rejection. He’s aware that he isn’t entitled to the love of his ex and that pursuing a relationship with her is fruitless, yet at the same time he still desires this relationship. Both stories are stronger because this conflict happens entirely in the protagonist’s head, without any external forces weighing in on the issue. Martin is a fan of writing the human heart in conflict with itself, after all.
The romantic rejections are also at the center of the protagonists’ loss of touch with reality. It’s never implied that Crystal or Karen were at fault, but the fact that they didn’t correspond some dude’s feelings was directly connected to this dude going insane. I’m not sure how I feel about that choice, especially now that it’s repeated across two different stories.
On the other hand, this is an opportunity to criticize toxic masculinity, something Martin would come to do very well in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve complained a lot about lack of diversity in his early writing, but those two stories wouldn’t work the same way without a male narrator. They deal with a very specific kind of entitlement, and while we’re invited to empathize with the protagonists, their feelings are far from endorsed. Or maybe I’m just giving Martin too much credit on this one.
Last but not least, the protagonists of both stories mistake reality and illusion, something that becomes apparent for the reader only at the end. The final twists make us reconsider everything these narrators told us so far, what we thought we knew about them, and how much we can trust their account of events. Yet This Tower of Ashes takes those questions further, exploring the fine line between lies and truth.
Bright and many-colored are the webs the dream-spiders weave
It’s no secret Martin loves unreliable narrators and likes to play with our perception of them. By the end of This Tower of Ashes, John he suggests he’s been drinking dream spider poison for a while. How much has that affected his memory of the events he just told us? What prevents him from having dreamt the whole story with Crystal and Gerry? Did Crystal and Gerry really visited him at some point? Are we even sure those two people exist, by the way?
In fact, tumblr user joannalannister takes these questions to the next level and has an intriguing theory about John not even being human. I have to confess this never occurred to me while reading the story, and I’m not entirely sure I believe Martin intended this interpretation. Yet it would explain a couple of elements that otherwise don’t make sense, like Squirrel, and there are definitely hints supporting this view. Actually, just the fact that this theory is plausible should hint at the mess Martin creates in our heads.
The relationship between fantasy and reality, truth and lies, is by far the most interesting aspect of This Tower of Ashes. It’s also a recurring conflict in Martin’s bibliography and it’s fascinating to see how his works, when considered together, complement each other in exploring these themes.
In The Second Kind of Loneliness, Martin warns us about the dangers of not engaging with real life for fear of its risks. As I argued a little while ago, With Morning Comes Mistfall reads as a love letter to fantasy. It’s Martin telling us that stories matter, even if they’re not real. Even A Song for Lya deals with these themes, placing Robb’s choice as a flawed, but human reality. There’s also ASOIAF, obviously. The conflict between truth and lies, songs and reality is present in several characters, although Sansa has to be the most obvious example.
Martin brings this conflict front and center in This Tower of Ashes. Almost opposing his thesis in With Morning Comes Mistfall, here he seems to criticize being lost in fantasies. As John drunkenly muses that the people in Port Jamison are stories, Korbec disagrees:
‘Don’t fool yourself,’ he said to me then, his face flush with wine and darkness, ‘you’re not missing nothin’. Lives are rotten stories, y’know. Real stories, now, they usually got a plot to ’em. They start and they go on a bit and when they end they’re over, unless the guy’s got a series goin’. People’s lives don’t do that nohow, they just kinda wander around and ramble and go on and on. Nothin’ ever finishes.’ ‘People die,’ I said. ‘That’s enough of a finish, I’d think.’ Korbec made a loud noise. ‘Sure, but have you ever known anybody to die at the right time? No, don’t happen that way. Some guys fall over before their lives have properly gotten started, some right in the middle of the best part. Others kinda linger on after everything is really over.’
John clearly endorses and values those words:
The weary realism that he offered me then is the only antidote there is for the dreams that spiders weave. But I am not Korbec, nor can I be, and while I recognize his truth, I cannot live it.
Given the status of truth placed in Korbec’s words, what I feel the story is telling us is this: lives are not stories, so living stories is not the same as living actual lives. This Tower of Ashes, as The Second Kind of Loneliness before it, sounds almost like a cautionary tale. Be careful with stories, it says. Yes, we all love dreams, even the spider’s victims would die without a fight because that’s how sweet fantasies are. But we pay a high price when we’re unable to let go of our fantasies and we have to be aware of that.
This is one of the moments I feel happy about reading Martin’s stories together, because because each of them brings a different piece to the puzzle. It’s a fascinating exploration of fantasy and reality that started decades ago and culminates with the multi-layered reconstruction of fantasy that is ASOIAF.
Next time: we’ll still be in the Thousand Worlds for “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man,” which has to be one of the best titles of anything ever.
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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