Warning: This article contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! Proceed with Caution.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a five movie saga (what happened to nice clean trilogies?), is now downloadable! Thus, yours truly has finally watched it after missing the initial theater release. The next installment of films set in Rowling’s wizarding world received pretty good reviews. However, like most of what we’ve seen out of Rowling recently, out of all the possibilities of expansive and interesting stories teased in her original novels, following Newt Scamander wasn’t the most initially enticing.
Yet, the Potter nerd within me couldn’t resist. I found the film quite enjoyable, actually. It’s definitely a step up for David Yates as director after he produced what I considered the worst of the Potter films. Yet, I found myself incredibly frustrated by the the b-storyline centering around Grindelwald.
First of all, the filmmakers announced the series would be following Grindelwald, not Newt. The fifth film will end in 1945 with the infamous battle between Grindelwald and Dumbledore. With that in mind, Fantastic Beasts seems like the wrong place to start this series.
Newt barely worked as a character for me. He only came alive those moments when we were in his case with him. Had they wanted to make a standalone film about Newt, he would have made a fine protagonist. And it makes me wonder if that’s what Fantastic Beasts had originally been meant to be.
Is he exceptionally interesting? No, but definitely adequate. The message, which often felt lost in all the hubbub, of protecting the rights of magical creatures would have made a strong theme for his own movie. (I won’t bring up the fact that he had had a muggle animal carcass lying around in his case, cause that’s different). In a world where we missed out on seeing Hermione’s fight for Elfish welfare in the film adaptation of Goblet of Fire, seeing more of the wizarding prejudice and cruelty brought to life would have been interesting.
Which then leads me to ask, does Newt not care about the rights of House Elves either? Is Hermione the only witch to have ever given a second thought to the enslavement of a magical creature? A creature so commonplace in the Wizarding community? Sorry for the tangent but Newt may need to extend his ideals beyond the animal world.
In the film, we hear Newt mention more than once that he’s attempting to “gently” teach his fellow wizards about compassion for their fellow magical creatures. It totally reminded me of when I not-so-subtly attempted to educate my friends and family about veganism (not that I think the film is about veganism). But, it was the one point in the movie where I connected to Newt and what he wanted. It was a strong core of ideals for his character, but it was lost as soon as the bigger plot with Credence and Grindelwald took center stage. Newt actually seemed unconcerned with Credence at the end of it, yet Credence could have fixed the focus issue. He could have brought Newt’s wants and values into the overarching plot of the series and tied it to Grindelwald.
Despite the potential plot with Newt and magical animal rights, this is the setup of a five film series about Grindelwald, his rise and his fall. We’re meant to understand this will lead us to the final battle with Dumbledore before he’s thrown into Nurmengard. The subtlety of weaving in a dark power wreaking havoc on the wizarding community and the panic and fear that it induces was an intriguing setting. It could have worked well, but instead the film functions as if it were a set up for two different franchises.
What do I mean by that? Fantastic Beasts could have been many things. It could have been the jumping off point for a series about Newt. A series about his adventures fighting for the rights of magical creatures. This could have been an interesting inciting moment where this scholarly wizard had his one brush with the greatest dark wizard of all time (before Voldemort). It would have also worked to establish the general panic, confusion, and fear that someone with Grindelwald’s power and message can create. Thus, it could have set the tone for a separate Grindelwald series as well.
Instead, we’re meant to believe that this was the setup for a single story with both of these plots. Somehow Newt Scamander, studier of magical creatures, is intwined with Gellert Grindelwald. Grindelwald who was the biggest threat to the world before Voldemort’s rise. It’s not believable, and it’s also not interesting. With Newt at the center, the threat of Grindelwald holds no weight. Newt’s not effected by any of it. We see this when he strolls unaware and unprepared into the current state of hysteria in New York.
Not to mention that within all that, Rowling, paints Grindelwald into the antithesis of what he functioned as in her original novels. It happens before our very eyes. We see the three dimensional and dynamic possibility, along with Colin Farrell’s compelling performance, fade into the bland piece of one dimensional cardboard cutout of evil that is Johnny Depp’s older Grindelwald.
Where’s the Nuance?
I must confess that I was one of the few fans who, when craving more content and more stories set in Rowling’s sprawling world, thought not of the Marauders but rather of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s origins. The pair had always intrigued me. Their relationship and what it meant to both of them broke down the caricatures. It deconstructed the wise mentor archetype that Rowling saddled Dumbledore with in the beginning of the tale. It granted nuance to a face of evil that we had failed to see with Voldemort.
Voldemort was always the embodiment of pure evil, unable to change, never faltering. Grindelwald was the opposite. Grindelwald and Dumbledore are essentially the Magneto and Professor X of Harry Potter. While Grindelwald’s horrific ideals of “the greater good” are terrifying and the atrocities he committed to achieve it unacceptable, he wasn’t as black and white as Voldemort. He and Dumbledore started in the same place in Godric’s Hollow and only ended up so far away from one another due to Ariana.
The way he acts as a foil for Dumbeldore only goes to show that Grindelwald isn’t “pure evil”. He’s horrific and a villain, no doubt, but the nuance is what makes him intriguing and all the more horrifying.
Dumbledore, as he states in the “King’s Cross” chapter of Deathly Hallows, could be Grindelwald. He wasn’t so far off, nor were his ideals. He states that if Ariana’s death hadn’t put things into perspective for him, he would have gone down that path. Had he ever sought a position of power, like the Minister of Magic so often offered to him, he could have regressed. He could have returned to being the Dumbledore huddled over papers with Grindelwald speaking of the “greater good” and the Hallows in Godric’s Hollow. Very little separates the two. It’s that relationship, that core bond and similarity, that forced the two against one another in the end. It’s also what is so intriguing.
Grindelwald was power hungry, idealistic, and willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. (Sound familiar?) He believed that the true place for wizard kind was not in hiding. Their power meant they were destined to rule the Muggles. Grindelwald thought that a reclamation of their power would be for the best for everyone. That Muggles would be safer and better off under wizarding rule. “For the Greater Good,” as he put it.
As I hinted at earlier, its the Magneto and Professor X argument about mutant kind. It’s not all that subtle, but it is ever so effective. After all, any time those two meet, their middle ground is the most intriguing part of their confrontations. Same with Grindelwald and Dumbledore. Grindelwald doesn’t want to kill every Muggle and Muggle-born like Voldemort. Voldemort’s ideal of a mass extermination is so evil one can’t deny his utter vileness. There’s no going back for a villain that evil, which is the climax of Harry’s final battle with him. Harry realizes there’s no saving someone like Voldemort even as he urges remorse.
Grindelwald is supremely horrific and commits horrible crimes in the name of “the greater good”, most definitely. But, in the end what makes him different and more interesting is that there are (very) small points of his argument that are understandable. It was the ground on which he and Dumbledore first walked on in Godric’s Hollow, even before they stumbled upon the whole “greater good” mentality.
He is human. With that humanity comes empathy. Not sympathy, for sure, but understanding. At the point in Dealthy Hallows when Voldemort confronts him to secure the Elder Wand, it becomes strikingly clear the two forms of villainy Rowling was painting. Voldemort, lusty and hungry for power, never stops. He never changes or relents. He is willing to do whatever it takes to kill Harry Potter, rule the wizarding world, and submit Muggles and Muggle-borns to mass persecution and execution.
Grindelwald, however, shows a shred of remorse. His final act shows that his years at Nurmengard actually changed him. He was changeable. When Voldemort asked him for the location of the Elder Wand, instead of confessing the truth and telling him Dumbledore won it in their infamous duel, he lies. He claims he never had it, knowing full well that his life would end there and then. Instead of allowing Voldemort to break into Dumbledore’s tomb, Grindelwald evinces the lingering and long-thought lost humanity that has always been inside of him. He uses the last moments of his life to do the only thing he could do to make what little amends he could to his old companion.
Perhaps we should have known the film series would destroy all this nuance. It should have been obvious when this scene played out on our screens in the first part of the film adaptation of Deathly Hallows in a very different way. Instead of securing the end of his life by concealing the place of the Elder Wand and the sanctity of Dumbledore’s tomb, Grindelwald outright tells Voldemort its location and final possessor. After that it should have been clear. It should have shown us that this was the Grindelwald the films would be interested in adapting.
Although with Rowling at the helm of Fantastic Beasts one would have hoped for something different. Where’s all that nuance Rowling? You gave him more nuance on those few pages than you did in the movie he was actually present in.
Touching on that nuance would have been perfectly exemplified by the involvement of the film’s ultimate plot point: the introduction of the Obscurial. An Obscurial is a young witch or wizard that, after years of suppressing their magic due to some sort of trauma, develops an Obscurus. They often lose control, leading to violent outbursts of dark and powerful magic.
It’s hinted that Grindelwald had an encounter with an Obscurial before, an encounter that would change his life. Muggles harassed Dumbledore’s younger sister, Ariana, for doing magic. They had seen how this trauma ultimately lead to her refusal to use her powers. Her suppression led to violent outbursts that she couldn’t control, as described by Aberforth Dumbledore in the novels. And Ariana was what drew the wedge between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. She not only represented a home that he couldn’t leave after his mother’s death, but also the future that he and Grindelwald hoped to build together.
People like her were a driving force for people like Dumbledore and Grindelwald and their frustration with wizard-kind hiding and cowering, afraid of detection.
He told me what a stupid little boy I was, trying to stand in the way of him and my brilliant brother…didn’t I understand my poor sister wouldn’t have to be hidden once they’d change the world, and led the wizards out of hiding, and taught the Muggle’s their place? – Aberforth Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Grindelwald-as-Graves has a line after the MACUSA kill Credence. He asks them who that law actually protects. What kind of law is it when it leads to this type of emotional and psychical abuse of children? Who does it protect when it leads to the death of a kid who just needed help? Like Magneto, this type of a villain has a valid point. He has seen suffering and wants to act on it. It’s infinitely more interesting than a pure evil, power hungry maniac. The humanity makes him all the more terrifying because you can understand where it’s coming from.
Yet, the relationship with Credence isn’t stressed. At least not to the point where you would ever think Grindelwald actually cared about his second interaction with an Obscurial. This was his second chance. His moment to perhaps save someone this time. However, leaving all that out left the powerful line of his to the MACUSA flat. In what seems to be a scene that is the opposite of subtle or nuanced, he even tells Credence that he is a worthless squib. This causes Credence to reveal his true nature as the Obscurial in anger. It was ‘evil villain dialogue’ to a T.
Then, at the end, after the MACUSA blast a tormented and abused child to death for their law (would that be “for the greater good” then?), I found myself siding with him. Or at least I did, while I thought he was still Graves. But no one else in the film does, and our protagonists certainly don’t. In fact, they barely have a reaction to anything going on in that moment at all. No one cares about what Grindelwald-as-Graves is saying, but he brings up a good point.
There’s a layer to his argument that makes sense and after seeing an emotionally and physically traumatized child killed before your eyes. You should question the morality of the MACUSA, who, after all, made use of the death sentence earlier in the film. You understand what Grindelwald means and that’s both what is interesting and what is scary. He’s right. Who is their law protecting? What makes them so different than him? They’re just fighting for the protection of opposite sides. It doesn’t make what he’s been doing to make his point morally right, but he does have a point.
When you kill abused children in the name of the law, there’s more going on here than the black and white battle of good versus evil. However, without thinking or hesitating, our protagonists immediately side with the MACUSA, securing Grindelwald’s capture. There’s no hesitation. Seeing as how they are meant to be our eyes into the story, we aren’t supposed to second guess the MACUSA’s actions either.
The point of Grindelwald is that he’s supposed to be able to gain reasonable supporters and not just bigots. He’s playing on something many wizards have feared and thus they find a champion in his ideals. The Obscurial plot line should marry perfectly well with that notion, but instead it’s barely an afterthought.
Not to mention the god-awful look they gave Johnny Depp at the end. He looks less human than Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemeort. A monster persona is the opposite of what Grindelwald represents. Not all bad wizards are inhumanely bad. Not all bad wizards are uniquely flat out evil. It’s why the most interesting moments of Voldemort are his memories, when we see him before he went past the point of no return. Grindelwald inhabits in this grayer realm (in the books, that is). It’s a realm of nuance. But instead, Fantastic Beasts paints him as a horrifying one note monster, from his appearance down to his behavior.
What’s that? Questionable Implications?
Implications! My favorite subject! Many have already called Rowling for citing Dumbledore as gay “representation”. Meaning he’s gay despite the fact that it is never outright stated in the novel, only presented as subtext. Yet, on expanding Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship as well as their characters in Fantastic Beasts, Rowling has a chance to correct her wrongs. Although, judging by her interviews and what has been set up in this film, it seems like she might only be digging herself further into a hole.
According to Rowling, Dumbledore’s feelings for Grindelwald were never reciprocated. Instead, the relationship we see play out between Grindelwald-as-Graves and Credence in Fantastic Beats is more or less what conspired between the two young men that summer in Godric’s Hollow.
I think he was a user and a narcissist, and I think someone like that would use it, would use the infatuation. I don’t think that he would reciprocate in that way, although he would be as dazzled by Dumbledore as Dumbledore was by him, because he would see in Dumbledore, ‘My God, I never knew there was someone as brilliant as me, as talented as me. Together, we are unstoppable!’ So I think he would take anything from Dumbledore to have him on his side.- J.K. Rowling
We once again see gay sexuality as subtext in Fantastic Beasts. It’s a subtext painted more as an allegory than a piece of representation. Not to mention that if the relationship we see between Credence and Grindelwald-as-Graves is what Grindelwald’s relationship with Dumbledore was like, there is an alarming sense of manipulation and victimhood that comes with Rowling’s one and only instance of “representation”.
Why does it have to be one sided and abusive? In this film franchise, she has what most authors do not. She has a chance to correct herself on something she has been criticized for in the years since she wrote the books.
There is also something more realistic and vivid about a fast and toxic summer fling than a fast and toxic friendship. Romances move fast. People get in deep quickly. It also presents a more apt relationship and arc for the two of them if they actually did care about one another equally (once again reminiscent of Professor X and Magneto). There’s more meaning to what would be one of the most epic duels and climaxes at the end of the series. It also adds more weight and understanding to Grindelwald’s final moments in the book if he wasn’t just using Dumbledore or narcissistically attaching himself to his genius.
Instead of any of that, this is what we’re getting as our one piece of “representation”. If that’s all Grindelwald felt for Dumbledore, if what we see with him and Credence is essentially what went on in Godric’s Hollow all those years ago, that final battle that the series is presumably amping up to loses its dimensionality and power. Rather than two men who had deeper feelings for one another, feelings that ended in a rupture and an event that both of them seem to regret and want to forget. Rather than a confrontation with each other and a truth they pushed out of their minds for so long coming head to head, we’re getting a good guy and a bad guy.
Instead of seeing them come to wizarding blows after denying something within them to be able to continue on their paths. Instead of making that connection something deeper, we’re most likely getting a grand but flat, action-packed battle at the end of the series reminiscent of what they did with the final battle in the final Harry Potter film. We’re getting a manipulative and abusive force of evil and his victim. Now, that is a valid story to tell, but one far less interesting that what we could have gotten. Not to mention the fact that, once again, the gay ‘relationship’ was only subtext, which doesn’t give much, if any, hope for the future.
Also….why Johnny Depp?! I might have let out a sad cry when Colin Farrell and his ridiculously good performance as Grindelwald-as-Graves (seriously he was one of the two standouts) faded right before our eyes and turned into the bland and horrific bleach blond Grindelwald that Johnny Depp will be playing in the rest of the films. Why are they even casting him in things anymore? And why, when you have Colin Farrell at your disposal, do you waste a performance like that for what this ultimately was?
I could go into the fact that there are abuse allegations against Depp from Amber Heard that include a great deal of biphobia. Not a great choice of actor for someone who is playing the second half of what is the only canonically gay coded relationship in the series. But I won’t.
At the end of the day, like Rowling’s original material, there is a strength at the core. There’s undeniable thematic value. However, when translated and adapted, it has lost any and all of its nuance. For now, I think I’ll have to accept that as I watch these films come out for the next eight years. I’ll have to bury the dream of mine to see a properly done Grindelwald and Dumbledore series in the ground, along with the little bit of nuance Grindelwald’s book counterpart had.
Images Courtesy of Warner Brothers.
The Antagonists Are Back in Sorceress of Darshiva
In my last article I said that there weren’t concrete antagonists in Demon Lord of Karanda. Well, this book solves that problem, providing antagonists in spades. Sorceress of Darshiva, published in 1989, is the penultimate book of the Mallorean. It also brings a sense of danger and threat from our actual antagonists rather than secondary ones. Yes, Zandramas actually shows up in this novel. And as more than just a shadow at that, and it’s everything the series needed. Eddings also does some fascinating stuff with un-rooting the Angarak people from the systems introduced by Torak. Overall, Sorceress of Darshiva is one of my favorite novels in the whole series, and for good reason.
Spoilers for all of Sorceress of Darshiva, and all of David Eddings’s previous books.
Sorceress of Darshiva starts with our protagonists following Zandramas to Melcene. Melcene is a series of islands that house the commercial trading center of the east, and Silk is very at home there. Belgarath, Garion, and Beldin meet Senji, a clubfoot alchemist. He accidentally discovered sorcery in an attempt to turn lead to gold. Senji has one of the three original copies of the Ashabine Oracles. It’s a McGuffin that they’ve been chasing for two books now, and the payoff is excellent, and will be discussed in depth below. Senji also tells them that Cthrag Sardius was kept at the University for a number of decades.
After the meeting with Senji, the company finds out that Zandramas brought Baron Otrath with her when she left Melcena. He’s a cousin of Zakath’s, and Zandramas plans to use him as the Angarak king for the prophecy. We also see several POV changes in this period. Queen Porenn calls a meeting of the Alorn council upon receiving news of what happened in Mallorea. The Council decides to fake an alliance with Urgit to bring some of Zakath’s attention off of Darshiva and his attempt to location Garion and company.
Eventually, Zakath recaptures Garion and company traveling through Darshiva, on their way to Kell. Cyradis persuades him to join them, and they continue on their way to Kell. Zandramas fights with the ghost of Poledra, Belgarath’s wife. Durnik smashes two demon lords and is officially a disciple of Aldur. At the very end of the book, Garion picks up she-wolf and her cub. Belgarath and Beldin remember that Grolim’s can’t enter Kell and that the location of the Place Which Is No More is in Kell. They deduce that they are finally ahead of Zandramas, and the book ends.
Torak, the Dragon God of Angarak
The novel begins with a prologue from a Melcene history book. It details the foundation of the Melcene nation and how it fused with the Mallorean Empire. Considering that it provides a summary of those nations since the beginning of the world, it obviously mentions the now dead god. It’s been discussed before about how it’s the systems that Torak set up that are evil, not the people in those systems. This prologue shows that in effect. The historians describe Mallorea and Melcena as almost a utopia before Torak shows up before Vo Mimbre.
“A reign of terror descended upon Mallorea. … In one stroke, Torak’s disciples overturned millennia of military and bureaucratic rule and returned absolute dominion to the Grolims.” (p. 6).
This moment shows most clearly how it’s the systems that Torak set up that Garion and company despise. The forced conversion, which parallels a Western view of the totalitarian communism of the USSR. Generational indoctrination is a powerful thing, and it happened at Torak’s behest. The god who wears a mask made of iron and cracked the world.
But Torak also shows up outside ancient history. When Garion finally finds a copy of the Ashabine Oracles, he discovers that Torak directly addresses him. Belgarath calls it Torak’s one moment of sanity. It tells Garion that “what is foretold in these pages is an abomination. Do not let it come to pass.” (p. 95). Torak admits that his side winning is an abomination and tells his would-be killer to stop it. Then, later, he destroys it. It’s the willful self delusion that forms the central critique of the Soviet Union. That it broadcast the idea of the communist ideal while being otherwise.
Zandramas, the Child of Dark
In addition to the dead Child of Dark, we see the current Child of Dark as well. They’re both antagonists, and they both have the same place in the prophecy, but this book makes them distinct. It does this by exploring Zandramas’s history and by actually giving us two glimpses into her point of view.
In Zandramas’s point of view, we see constellations rise beneath her skin. Zandramas attributes this to the Dark Prophecy exerting more of it’s power over her. We can see that she’s terrified. These moments also allow us to see Geran, the emotional center of this, for the first time since the first book. We see that Zandramas makes sure he’s taken care of, but doesn’t want him inconveniencing her. She leaves his care to Naradas and another priestess.
Zandramas’s terror and her overall plan, as discovered by her history, make her distinct from Torak. She began life as a priestess of Torak, working under Naradas. Then, after Torak died, the Dark Spirit took control of her, and she ran wild for years. When she returned to the temple, she charmed everyone into working for her. She preached that a New God would come and she would be his bride.
Torak always wanted to be the center of everything. Kal Torak literally means king and god. He dominated Angarak and demanded human sacrifice, but he wasn’t ever loved. Garion won because of that. Zandramas learned from the Dark Prophecy’s mistakes. She doesn’t want to be a god, she just wants to be the power behind the throne, both secular and spiritual. This corresponds to the transitional period of communism, where the USSR traded with capitalist countries before it collapsed.
Cthrag Sardius, the Sardion
Juxtaposed against the human motivations of our other antagonists, we see the Sardion. This book solidifies what the Sardion is. In essence, it’s the evil counterpart of the Orb of Aldur. The two stones were originally one stone, but they were divided and now they war against each other.
But, unlike the Orb of Aldur, a band of ‘savages’ found the Sardion and their generations polished it, like Aldur polished the Orb. Eventually the Melcene Empire collected it for their library, and it stayed there for millennia. Then, when the Battle of Vo Mimbre happened on the other side of the world, a historian stole it. His ship sank, and the Sardion with it. Cyradis told everyone that the Sardion is in the Place Which Is No More, where the final meeting will take place.
But the real horror of Cthrag Sardius lies in what it will do to Geran. One of the requirements for the final meeting is a sacrifice. In this case, it’s a person who will hold both the Orb of Aldur and the Sardion in their hands. With the both of them they’ll have unlimited power to reshape the world. The new god of Angarak will either heal the world, or destroy it utterly. Zandramas wants Geran to destroy the world and make it in the image of the Dark Prophecy.
It is that image, Geran with both stones in his hands, that so terrified Torak. That is why Garion might have to kill his only son. The idea of the world falling to communism routinely terrified people during the Cold War. They taught their children to glorify America, as the anti-communist utopia instead. Geran’s eventual fate takes that and twists it in a way that horrifies the characters and the readers.
The Final Un-Rooting of Systemic Evil
One of the subplots in Sorceress of Darshiva is how Urgit manages to finally reject and exile Agachak. He lays down the law, and Cthol Murgos transitions to one where the church’s, and Torak’s, lingering influence diminishes. Previously, Urgit’s advisors, including Agachak and his father’s generals, ruled his behavior. Now, after some advice from Garion, he’s managed to root them out. Agachak goes to the absolutely stupid Gethel of Thull, and convinces him to join him in Mallorea. But it’s still a victory for Urgit and for the light. It’s the proactive nature of someone who won’t be controlled again, and who won’t allow his country to be controlled either.
Urgit also has a victory in his pseudo-alliance with the Alorns. While on the Alorn side, it is purely a diversion for Zakath, on Urgit’s side it’s something more genuine. He wants peace with his ancestral enemies, and he’s taking steps to secure it and to step further away from the dark.
Zakath’s transition to the light also takes place in this book as well. Once he recaptures Garion and the rest, Zakath originally wants to send them to Mal Zeth. With Cyradis’s command, that changes. Cyradis reveals that Zakath is the Empty One, another figure of prophecy on the side of the light. After a few moments of internal conflict, Zakath agrees to go with them. Immediately afterwards, it’s like a personality transplant. Zakath, Emperor of Mallorea, had been grim and shied away from doing violence himself. Zakath, friend of Garion, can only be described as Arendish. Laughing at everything, getting into every possible fight, and with some other indefinable Arendish quality to him. He’s acting like someone from the ‘civilized West’ rather than someone from Angarak, and that speaks to this unrooting.
The un-rooting of Torak’s influence also plays out on sacred grounds as well. While Garion and company travel through Peldane and Darshiva, they see many different temples. All the masks above the temples, that once showed Torak’s face, are now blank. Urvon and Zandramas fight all through Peldane and Darshiva over who the new god will be, but this change says more than that. It’s a preparation for a new god, either Urvon, Geran, or whoever Garion chooses.
It’s not only the people preparing for a new god, the possibility of the new gods are also preparing. Before their capture by Zakath, the company winds up in an abandoned farmhouse for shelter. An old Grolim comes to them, and offers them food and hospitality. He talks about how he heard the voice of the new god, and now he decorates the altar with flowers and repents everything he did for Torak. He believes that the Light god prepared him to be its first disciple. A Grolim, someone inside the power structure determined as evil, repenting and being a driving force for good is new, and excellent for the philosophy of the work.
The current existing Prophecy makes an appearance shortly after the Grolim disappears and says all of this. He then goes on to say, “when Destiny is reunited, there should be a new voice. … Millions of years of enmity between us have warped our perceptions a bit … I’m not suited to deal with a united universe. I’ve got too many old grudges. The new voice can start out fresh without any preconceptions.” (p. 146). Those grudges and preconceptions are exactly why Eddings is being so careful to change the perception of the Angaraks by characters and readers alike. To accept the fictional and actual antagonists as people.
In 1989, Eddings published Sorceress of Darshiva and the Berlin Wall fell. That symbolic fall prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There’s no mistake in the fact that he combines the final moments of un-rooting with preparations for a future afterwards. This book focuses heavily on the antagonists, yes, but it also finalizes that change in the people previously stigmatized by their association with them. That Torak’s moment of sanity, Zandramas’s fear, Zakath’s acceptance, and Agachak’s banishment all occur in the same book is important.
It signals all of that preparation for the future. By showing the quasi-human nature of our antagonists, except the Sardion, it makes the readers more likely to accept their followers as people with hearts and souls. By un-rooting the enemies turned allies from the systems that made them enemies, it does the same thing. That this all happens the year the Berlin Wall fell is hyper significant. It’s a symbolic gesture, yes, but symbols and stories mean things. Who better to know that than an English teacher with a predisposition for archetypes? Eddings may not have realized that he was writing a metaphor for the Cold War, but it’s there in his symbols and his philosophy nonetheless, especially here, and especially now.
Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books
Dr. Strange May Be A Truly Cult Movie
Watching Dr Strange was a truly strange experience for me. I sat before the screen expecting two hours of mindless fun as I watch a self-absorbed jerk become something like a decent guy. You know, this ever-present and ever-satisfying “break the haughty” narrative. A safe bet, not too harsh on the haughty (it’s MCU, after all), but harsh enough we cheer him getting his comeuppance. What it turned into, was two hours of flashbacks as I watched a haughty jerk being broken and brainwashed into a cult.
Probably I wouldn’t react that badly if this experience was not something from my personal past. Things I saw at the screen were excruciatingly familiar. I couldn’t help rooting for the jerk, because I knew all too well what it is, feeling that you are nobody, that the world is crumbling around you—and then being handed something like a power over it.
And while I am sure that it was nowhere near authorial intent, I couldn’t help wondering how many people—impressionable, vulnerable people—would buy into the narrative and turn to some secret knowledge to cope with their illnesses or insecurities. After all, Kamar Taj, both in appearance and in teaching, is very far from fantasyland. You can find dozens of wannabe Ancient Ones just around the corner, waiting for easy prey.
Yeah, sounds very purple, but let me show you why am I so agitated.
What Is a Cult?
A cult—also a totalitarian cult, toxic cult or destructive cult—is a religious or posing as a religious organisation which teachings and practice are designed to achieve and execute total control over its members’ life and death. Not quite a lucid definition, and that’s why the thin line between a cult and a new religious movement is so thin. The subject is controversial, the “cult” word is thrown around as a slur and generally only time we can safely use the definition is, while talking fiction or the cults that 100% exposed themselves as such via some drastic action. Mass suicide or terrorist attack, usually, and sometimes both.
But still there is a list (several lists, but they mostly talk the same things in different wording) of traits that may alarm you that the group is most probably toxic. Let me show how astonishingly well Kamar Taj fits the criteria. Then I’ll try to demonstrate how typical dr Strange’s situation actually is and what usual manipulative tactics were employed to guarantee his loyalty. I’ll use the list provided by M. Kuzmin in his thesis.
1. A Teaching that Rationalises and Encourages Control and Manipulation
They don’t just brainwash—they do it for the greater good and to prevent lesser ones from slipping on the path to salvation. Or something like that. It is prime trait of a toxic cult; a pity it is not easy to see it through, as the real teaching is not revealed until a person is considered “ready” (read: is totally broken).
Through the movie we hear Mordu describing his own path into Kamar Taj. He tells how he went there to get weapons and training sufficient to fight his foes and was promised to get those. Then he was made to go through usual training routine until he understood that his past—name included—was nothing and Kamar Taj was everything and he is destined to be its adherent. Though he recognises manipulation, he not only completely justifies it, but also expresses hope such would be dr Strange’s fate, too.
And indeed, no one in the Kamar Taj is anywhere near ashamed of stringing along a desperate disabled person with promises of healing all the while basically training him as a cannon fodder for future battles.
2. The Leader, Regarded as an Absolute Unquestionable Authority
While there are some cults that have group leadership, this figure is almost inevitable when we talk about the cult, as they are built around them. The guru may proclaim themselves a literal god (or God), as Shoko Asahara or Maria Devi Christ did, or a prophet, as Jim Jones. They can even settle for indefinite “possessor of the knowledge”, as Marshall Applewhite. No matter what they chose, entire existence of the cult depends on their very person and something only they know or can do.
Does Kamar Taj have such a person? Oh, certainly. The Ancient One is just that; an absolute, infallible guru who is right even when she is actually wrong, and whose actions are not for the lesser minds to judge. She wields absolute authority over her acolytes and can make them fight using real weapons or even leave for dead on a whim. All the while the very idea that she may be wrong is a heresy for the loyal Kamar Taj members, and a sign something is “unwell” with the person in question.
3. The Teaching Changes When Situation Changes, But It Is Never Acknowledged
They promised us the world’s end and it didn’t come? Oh, you see, it was not the real end. It was never about something like that. Or better: yesterday they taught absolute monogamy, but now the guru is caught cheating. So, as the guru is never wrong…
Well, we have an entire plot point, no less, dedicated to this exact rule of cult. So, the entire Kamar Taj had existed for ages on a premise that Dark Energy is bad and corrupting and everything Dark Dimension is vile. But lo! The guru used dark energy to sustain her all those innumerable years! She must be a crank, then? A liar, who forbid her loyal acolytes the thing she had been doing all along?
Nah. No way, You see, the rules exist to break them and cheat, and if you think the rules that you were manipulated to accept as a final truth matter, you are our next bad guy.
Or was it an instance of the next cult rule?
4. Each Subsequent Hierarchical Level Is Granted a Different Version of “Truth”
Basically this is the most glaring distinction between a religion, whatever new, and a cult. You join a religion, and you know what does it teach and what do you subscribe to. If it was one god, three goddesses and a ritual cup of tea every three hours when not asleep, that’s it all along. With a cult, you join for a god, three goddesses and a cup of tea, but then learn that it’s not tea but actually vodka, and when you progress in the ranks you may learn that there is one goddess and no god at all, and then – that gods are nothing, only guru matters. And then something.
The teaching of Kamar Taj does change from rank to rank, too. You come to them because they are healers and martial artists. If you are fit for them, you learn about astral and the source code of the Universe. Next level, and you learn the purpose of Kamar Taj is to protect Earth from a certain other dimension and you have to obey strict rules unless you would harm our world. Even next level, and the rules matter nothing and result is all. And then something.
To save time and space let me not delve into other very fitting criteria—like having a teaching that combines syncretic religion with pseudo-science, that justifies and even encourages violence towards critics and ex-members of the cult, that encourages active service in “do whatever you are told” way… Kamar Taj is already cult-like enough.
But nothing proves it as well as main character’s story. Just look for yourself.
Cult Brainwashing 101
So, we have a man in his late thirties/mid-forties, the age of crisis. This man suffers an accident and is now disabled. As his only profession requires the very ability he’s lost, he searches for rehabilitation and encounters a rumour of miraculous healer. Desperate, he goes for it and gradually becomes an active member of a group that presents itself as Earth’s only hope and secret guardians. He never heals and is never able to go back to work. Also, he leaves the world forever, going on to live on the group’s premises.
Huh, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it can get worse.
Our hero roams the world in search of the healer, until he encounters a group of thugs. Those thugs beat him violently and destroy the last memento of his previous life: his wristwatch. Only then a member of the group intervenes and quickly saves the day. He waits, because he was told to wait. Because apparently our hero needs…something. Do you know what? He needs to lose everything and to be on his utmost vulnerable when presented with the cult teaching—and to be thankful for help. While not too common, the tactic is widely employed irl. It ensures bigger susceptibility of the adherent-to-be through combination of humiliation and gratitude.
Also, the very exhaustion he suffers because Kamar Taj remains hidden from him is quite helpful, too. Exhausted people are not quite able to think critically, as analysis and logic require much energy and all energy they have goes to sustaining them alive and upright.
And Then Some
Moving on, our hero is presented with some mumbo-jumbo and then graced with a very, VERY acid vision. While here it’s magical in nature, it would be literal acid irl. Secretly feeding newcomers with hallucinogens is a very, very common tactic of those cults that emphasise and promise secret knowledge and spiritual experience. Bright, wild hallucinations make people believe that they were granted visions and have some supernatural power in them.
So, our hero’s weakened mind is bombarded with mumbo-jumbo, followed by acid visions “proving” the mumbo-jumbo is actually true. Nice. But not perfect. To add a final touch, our hero is cast away and left on the street with nothing but his clothes, broken watch and a promise of miraculous healing. He has nowhere to go but to the c… Kamar Taj. But the Ancient One knows her manipulation 101 and makes him yell, beg, despair. He has to wish for acceptance with all his heart, to see no other way. He must beg, because nothing is as effective as humiliation.
Except for a death threat, of course. Being humiliated AND left in a mortal peril is much better. Do I need to remind our hero is subjected to it?
Conclusion (Or Lack Thereof)
My goal was not to imply the authors of the movie did all that on purpose. Never would I even dream of such a thing.
What I actually think is, that the authors used the same tropes the real-life cults use in recruiting new members and promoting their teaching. Those tropes are widely popular in popular culture—which is actually the very reason the cults use them. Familiarity is quite important when encountering something new. Things already at least seemingly familiar attract much more trust and attention than completely new ones.
Combined with several instances of what I consider authorial tone-deafness, this lead to a load of unfortunate implications. As with Thanos, the end result is horrifying idea no author would’ve supported as it is, but accidentally promoted.
DC Elevates Batwoman to Live Action, Cancels Her Book
Ugh. Before anyone asks, no, there’s no way to save Batwoman from cancellation. Again. Volume 3 is dead. If you’re one of the ~25,000 people who bought and read Batwoman during the New52 era, in which her book reached a total of 45 issues (including two annuals, two #0s, and a crappy tie-in), but then just noped out reading Batwoman Rebirth…welp. Fuck you.
Because yes, that’s how frustrated I am.
The comics world didn’t get less diverse between the first cancellation and the relaunch. Sure, we’re sort of living in a Darkest Timeline scenario but that doesn’t mean socio-cultural progress evaporates overnight! Especially when the kind of people that Kate’s original ongoing managed to reach are only more numerous now. Which just begs the question: why did nobody read this book?
Unfortunately I suspect that I already know the reason. It’s kind of the same reason people seem to be sleeping on Black Lightning despite it being streets ahead of every other DCTV production. The lesbian wasn’t shtupping anyone (well, not in present day). Of course, in Black Lightning’s case, there’s also racism involved, but the more explicit and assertive Jewishness Bennett wrote in for Kate probably set off quite a few antisemite alarms. This attitude is unfortunately disturbingly common within queer spaces, because of course it is. Which means, yes, one can technically blame Nazis for Batwoman’s cancellation. I know I am!
(Or DC suits mumbling about ROI.)
So where do we go from here? Apparently, we sit on our hands and wait for December to roll around and watch the CW likely take a giant dump all over Kate Kane. I’m not going into this hopeful, and it’s not because I think it’s impossible to do it right. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s that difficult to pull off. You just need to actually know who she is. Here’s a list of people who have demonstrated that they fit that description:
- James Tynion IV
- Marguerite Bennett
- Tom Taylor
- Gail Simone
- J.H. Williams III
- Haden Blackman
Notice someone missing? It’s Greg Rucka! Because apparently “his” Kate is entirely unrecognizable from the Kate we have now (and have always had), which means he’s either pissed he didn’t get to write this stuff and is being a jerk about it…or his original intent was absolute shit. Either way, not a great look for Greg.
Obviously, none of those people will be writing/advising/consulting for the DCTV yearly crossover event. Maybe there’s someone on one of those four writing staffs that does get her, but the odds of that are exceedingly low. And even if someone does, the odds of them being able to adapt her right are basically zilch.
Why? It’s not because I suspect they’re only doing this as a palate cleanser/apology after the nazi-tastic crossover last year. It’s also not because Kate’s maybe being brought in to show off their stunning “progressivism”. It’s because the folks over at DCTV clearly lack one of the most fundamental understandings of how Kate can even be Batwoman: there needs to be a Batman.
For anyone who knows the story well, this should not be a surprise even if it does sound like a fanboy’s wet dream. There will always be a Batman, regardless of who happens to be under the cowl, but there are so many ways that there wouldn’t be a Batwoman. So many, in fact, that the entire running theme of Bennett’s Batwoman run was about that explicit choice she made, and the one she continues to make every time she operates as Batwoman. Kate chose this. She was not compelled by a bat flying through the window, or the hands of fate. The Batwoman is not a universal constant.
Kate Kane wanted to protect innocent lives, and her country. Following in her family’s long history of military service, she enlisted and attended West Point. Near the end of her second semester, she was dishonorably discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (watch them cut this and never elaborate on why she was kicked out aka the Andreyko Origin) because she refused to lie about who she was. The flag she wanted to serve tossed her into the dumpster, and that’s where she forced herself to stay in a drunken stupor for years and years.
The Kanes are a very prominent family, so this made headlines. Kate was basically outed globally. She had money, and her father had no earthly idea how to help her find a new purpose in life since she’d dedicated her entire existence towards serving others and fixing the world from literally her twelfth birthday. That is, until she found a new flag.
If not for that one night in the alley—in which she was not saved by Batman, but rather offered a helping hand out of the rain—Kate would never, not in a million years, have considered vigilantism as an actual option for her. Because that’s completely insane. The only way Kate becomes Batwoman is by meeting Batman. Thus, there cannot be a Batwoman without the Batman.
So, does that mean there is a Batman in the Arrowverse now? Is he dead? If Bruce is dead, why isn’t Dick the new Batman? If Dick is dead too, why not Tim? Or a resurrected Jason? Or, shit, Damian? Jean-Paul Valley? There has to be a goddamn Batman, and ultimately it doesn’t matter who it is, there just has to be somebody in the costume to inspire Kate and legions of others.
Tynion’s run has been very explicitly about what the Bat means to different people. How it can manifest, and how people interpret the symbol. It’s no accident that The Colony, Kate’s father’s black-ops group designed to operate like a literal army of Batmen in terms of effectiveness, exists in indirect opposition to Bruce’s ideology…yet more or less consistent with Kate’s. Because Kate doesn’t wear a costume; it’s a uniform.
So why the hell would Batwoman of all people be the focus of a DCTV four-part crossover? What possible plot contrivance could there be to remove every other vigilante from Gotham, because literally all of them are more inclined to interact with “tourists” than Kate? The answer is going to be stupid or shallow.
Whoever shows up on screen won’t be Kate Kane. She may have the name, and the colors, and the look, and the mentality of a Navy SEAL/Green Beret/Marine, but it won’t be her. Because at the end of the day, as far as DCTV is concerned, Kate is a lesbian and they got lots of good press from that Alex stuff, and hey Kate once dated Floriana Lima’s “Maggie Sawyer” (who totally isn’t a watered down Renee Montoya) so this all makes perfect sense!
Well, all of that stuff, but also a lack of emphasis on her Jewishness kind of breaks her character. Intentional or otherwise (great job, Greg!), Kate needing to scream for her own right to exist is kind of integral to how she operates and lives and you know…exists. Kinda speaks for itself considering what she had to do to find some sort of grounding in her life after the military shat her out.
All of that being said, the optics here are just…really bad. DC shoves Kate on the silver screen and then axes her book? Look, we’ve all seen Marvel do that over and over and over and over and over again with their movies, but this is just a new level of stupid. Considering how the only other queer lead book DC has in their primary line is the abysmal Wonder Woman by James Robinson (that is somehow getting a spin-off featuring the somehow not copyright infringing Wonder Man?!), this is a Bad Look.
Which makes me suspect that DC isn’t so much as cancelling the book, as they are retooling for a relaunch around December with a new #1 and creative team. Probably with Kate Perkins because she’s written two Batwoman stories for DC already, despite them being just…comically insincere.
Or maybe they’ll give it to Gail. God, I hope they do. I mean, I’m heartbroken that Bennett lost her literal dream job because people won’t consume queer media unless there’s shipping, but I’m also terrified of Kate just…going up on the shelf. For a very, very long time. At least the solicitation for the series finale has Kate clearly getting back together with Renee. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Back in February of last year, I told you folks that this was likely going to be Kate’s last chance at a solo book. Let’s pray I’m not right.