I admit, I’m a sucker for anything Leia related. She’s my favorite character in the entire Star Wars franchise (sorry, Doctor Aphra, but you will always come in second). That being said, Claudia Grays new YA novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan (hereafter PoA) blew me away. And I already loved Bloodline, Gray’s novel about middle-aged Leia set not long before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I didn’t think Gray could prove to me even more how much she understands Julia’s, Kylie’s, and my perceptions of Dutiful Princess Leia after Bloodline. And then she wrote this.
PoA is stunningly in character, character driven, and rich. I know for a fact that I’ll be reading it again and again, and that’s not something I normally say about YA novels. There are deep, multi-layered relationships between female characters, complicated family dynamics, a shit-ton of pre-A New Hope era worldbuilding, and plenty of easter eggs for more dedicated Star Wars fans (Krennic anyone?). In short, it’s one of the best damn Star Wars novels of New Canon and a must-read for any Leia fan.
A (Brief) Spoiler Free Rundown
Sixteen-year-old Princess Leia Organa faces the most challenging task of her life so far: proving herself in the arena of body, mind, and heart to be formally named heir to the throne of Alderaan. She’s taking rigorous survival courses, practicing politics, and spearheading relief missions to world under Imperial control.
But Leia has worries beyond her claim to the crown. Her parents, Breha and Bail, aren’t acting like themselves lately; they are distant and preoccupied, seeming more concerned with throwing dinner parties for their allies in the Senate than they are with their own daughter. Determined to uncover her parents’ secrets, Leia starts down an increasingly dangerous path that puts her right under the watchful eye of the Empire. And when Leia discovers what her parents and their allies are planning behind closed doors, she finds herself facing an impossible choice: dedicate herself to the people of Alderaan—including the man she loves—or to the galaxy at large, which is in desperate need of a rebel hero…
The Good Stuff
Fair warning, I’m going to gush. A lot. You can tap out of my fangirling whenever you want, but I have so much to say about this book that I couldn’t cut anything. Think of it as more of a book analysis than a strict review, if that helps.
PoA is not a traditional YA novel, though my opinion on that might stem from having mostly read YA dystopian novels in the past few years. For starters, Gray utilizes third person intimate narrative perspective rather than first person. I find the choice not only refreshing but fitting. Third person intimate offers all the benefits of first person—close, visceral engagement with Leia’s feelings and thoughts—without the drawbacks of a potentially boring or annoying headspace. (Not that Leia would have either of those, but still.) We experience Leia’s struggles with her, but we get to see beyond that as well.
Leia’s Character Arc
PoA is almost entirely character driven rather than being a rapid-fire action story like the Abyss duology. Leia’s internal conflict acts as the major motivating factor for the plot rather than the plot itself. The Challenges of Heart, Mind, and Body she must accomplish to be invested as official heir to Alderaan exist to contextualize and further develop Leia’s psychological and emotional struggles with her parents’, and eventually her own, involvement with the budding rebellion against the Empire.
It’s a character study of teenage Leia, a privileged (in the socio-political sense) royal heir on the cusp of adulthood transitioning into a determined, compassionate leader both for planet and the rebellion. Yet rather than give us a silly, pampered, spoiled, or naïve princess learning how to have compassion and look beyond herself as some authors might have done (a rather sexist narrative in itself given the underlying assumptions about teenage girls such a perspective implies), Gray offers something completely different. The Leia we encounter already has much of the character traits we love about her: her sense of duty, her compassion, her instinct for command and leadership, her ability to manipulate other people’s perceptions of her to her advantage in order to accomplish her goals, a dedication to her people and the oppressed of the galaxy at large.
Nor does Gray shy away from honestly representing Leia’s character flaws. Her temper comes up more than once—a flaw Gray also highlights in Bloodline, so A+ marks for consistency in characterization. Leia’s tendency to judge people instinctively and be slow to change her mind about them is a recurring theme. So, too, her action-oriented, impulsive approach to problem-solving that sometimes misses the forest for the trees. In short, she’s the Princess Leia we know from the film franchise, just younger and still figuring some things out.
Thus, Leia grows not by learning compassion or how to take charge; she already has those traits. Rather, she learns what it takes to be the leader she already wants to be, and must choose if she’s willing to accept the sacrifices, and the burden of guilt, loss, and remorse, that such leadership requires. She experiences the consequences of decisions made without all the information. She learns how to form alliances, rely on others, and delegate tasks to those with the best skillsets for the job. She’s not learning that she can lead, but how.
Leadership has burdens, some of which can and ought to be shared, some of which must be borne alone. How to balance the two, as well as how and when to let yourself enjoy life even when the world is full of oppression, is yet another aspect of Leia’s journey. The novel both assumes and proves Leia’s capability even as Leia herself struggles to prove herself to her parents. It’s a delicate balance and Gray manages it deftly.
Moreover, Gray acknowledges Leia’s privilege yet never condemns her for having advantages other people don’t. She can’t help who her adopted parents are or what her home culture is like. She can, however, use those advantages to help shield and lift up others, which is precisely what she does. As a message to teens, I can’t help but marvel at how delicately Gray handles the concept of privilege. Leia’s story is a call to arms for girls (and boys) with systemic advantages to use those advantages for others.
Along similar lines, I cannot overemphasize enough the importance of a story about a 16-year-old princess—and one who is decidedly not Not Like Other Girls—who stands up for herself, for others, and for what’s right. One who believes she can make a difference and acts on it. One who loves her parents, and they love her, and understands that open, honest communication is the key to healthy relationships even if she has to figure out exactly how to do that. One who stares down tyranny and oppression and fights not to be Rebellious™ for it’s own sake, but to do the right thing and right the wrongs of an oppressive society.
I really, really love Princess Leia, okay?
Romance and Relationships
Also unlike many YA stories, the romance takes a back seat to Leia’s complicated dynamic with her parents, which I appreciate. She also gets to have meaningful friendships with other female characters alongside of her love interest. For Gray, no one kind of relationship, being it platonic, romantic, or parental, matters more than any other. They all make up who Leia is as a person and have different roles to play in her story.
I’ve seen some people criticize the love interest, Kier Domadi, for being boring, but I quite liked him. He’s different enough from Han to not be a copy, but not so totally different that it undermines either of them as love interests for the same character. He’s neither a knockoff or a replacement for Han, but Leia’s attraction to him still makes sense. Their relationship also helps contextualize Leia’s resistance to forming lasting attachments in the midst of war and why it was she fell for Han in the first place.
More than anything what I enjoy about Kier and Leia’s relationship is the emphasis placed on friendship, mutuality, and consent. Leia is in control of how far the relationship progresses and never changes herself to gain Kier’s approval.
It must be said that many of the same people I see criticize Kier often argue in favor of a queer relationship between Amilyn Holdo and Leia. While I understand the draw of this ship (it’s pretty fantastic) and am sympathetic to the desire for a queer Leia, I think it’s important to remember two things. One, The chances of Disney and Lucasfilm story group canonizing queer Leia are less than none. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it’s the truth. Gray is not at liberty to inject her own version of Leia into the novel. Even if she wanted to canonize queer Leia (which may or may not be true), given how tightly Disney and Lucasfilm story group control new canon, it would never happen.
But that doesn’t mean they’re close-minded. The team is actively working on expanding the diversity of their representation, including the normalization of diverse gender identity, sexual orientation, racial and species backgrounds, interracial relationships, and women in all levels of society and work. The effort put into building such diversity into the minute fabric of the worldbuilding in the Star Wars comics and novels is quite evident. Part of normalization is working diversity into the background, and it’s everywhere in New Canon.
It’s not just background either. They have okayed protagonists (Aphra) and secondary characters as queer (Amilyn herself) and permitted pretty heavy queer subtext for some iconic characters (Ahsoka). They’re moving in the right direction. While more can definitely be done and pushed for representation-wise, they’ve been pretty clear about Leia’s sexuality. And I’m okay with that. Canonizing their most iconic female character as queer is a lot to ask. It’s fair to be disappointed, but it’s also important to be realistic.
Secondly, such criticism of Kier ignores what makes him interesting and exciting as a love interest. For one, like most other Alderaanians’, he’s non-white; his skin tone is described in exactly the same way as Breha’s and Bail’s, both of whom are played in the films by Latinx actors. This may not sound significant, but it is. Interracial ships are still rare, especially white women with non-white men. There’s a lot of fandom racism about these kinds of ships in particular and Star Wars is no exception. Just scroll through a Tumblr search for Rey x Finn if you don’t believe me.
In that light, giving Leia a canonically non-white love interest is a big deal.
He’s also strongly coded as neurodivergent, which just adds more layers of impressive. While not queer, Gray gave Leia one of the most diverse love interests she possibly could, and that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
I also appreciate how well Gray, and other recent Star Wars novels, have nuanced the Imperial/Rebel Alliance conflict. Or, rather, how well they’ve nuanced the people on both sides of the conflict. Because regardless of what I’ve seen people say, the New Canon Star Wars novels never shy away from calling Palpatine of the Empire tyrannical, evil, and immoral. Nor do they shy away from showing the atrocities that occur under and because of its dominion. PoA is no exception. The Empire as a system of government and Palpatine as the leader of it are evil and oppressive and must be stopped, full stop.
That does not mean the books don’t attempt to put a human face on the people existing within and even supporting that system. People get caught up in pretty awful things for reasons other than “they’re racist bigots”. Sometimes it’s “I need to feed my family” or “I’m loyal to that one person and have a hard time seeing them as anything but the good person they used to be”. Sometimes fear keeps people from acknowledging how bad things are, or a desire for comfort, or a love of home and protecting the things they love. It doesn’t change or excuse their choices, but it’s worth remembering that not everyone who actively or passively supports a tyrannical regime does it to be a huge asshole.
A system can be evil, but that doesn’t mean every single person who either participates in or fails to fight back against it is also 100% evil. True moral complexity is not the same thing as moral equivocation. Nowhere do PoA or any of the other New Canon Star Wars novels seem to imply that the actions of such morally grey characters are anything but reprehensible. However, there’s a difference between saying someone acted immorally and calling that person evil. Star Wars is attempting to walk that line, and for the most part, I think they succeed admirably. That being said, I’ll be the first to tap out if it starts to veer too much into apology.
I know it’s a fine line between excusing and nuancing. And recent events in our social history may lend a less sympathetic eye to the goals of the Star Wars novels in attempting to paint a more nuanced picture of Imperial loyalists. At the same time it’s helpful to remember that these books were written before Charlottesville. Before our president failed to immediately and whole-heartedly condemn white supremacy. Such events may change how we digest these stories, for sure. But if anything, I think remembering the goal of such nuancing is even more important now.
To me, putting a humanizing, sympathetic face on characters who are loyal to the Empire helps us understand them. (Note: understand, not agree with, excuse, or give into.) Comprehending those who think differently, even in ways we find repugnant, helps us to fight back. Knowing how they see the world better arms those of us who resist to engage with them more effectively. Like Leia, we can fight better when we know those on the opposite side and why they act and think as they do. And we may even be able to win some of them over despite their passivity or even outright resistance to our perspective.
One of my favorite things about Bloodline was the canonization of Leia Huttslayer. If you don’t know what I mean, Leia Huttslayer was a fanon creation that sought to reclaim the sexist depiction of Leia in Return of the Jedi while Jabba’s slave. Leia Huttslayer turns an act of objectification (the slave costume) into an act of defiance (killing Jabba with the literal and metaphorical symbols of her slavery). In Bloodline, Leia Huttslayer has become a symbol of underground resistance to the Hutt cartels and a powerful motivator to rise up against them. The focus becomes Leia’s power rather than her exploitation and objectification. Canonizing Leia Huttslayer was a pretty blatant fuck you to one of the most sexist moments in Leia’s scripting.
Gray does something similar in PoA, though much more subtly. In the Original Trilogy, the second most sexist depiction of Leia, to my mind, comes at the end of Return of the Jedi when she’s intentionally softened and sidelined to being more of a traditional female love interest to the more active male protagonists.
Throughout PoA Gray repeatedly points out the importance of hairstyles for the royal women of Alderaan. The intricate patterns of braids Breha and Leia wear symbolize their royal authority. Leia and Breha literally start their days with getting their hair braided and never take them out in public. An Alderaanian woman letting someone take down her braids is one of the most intimate acts she can allow, and even seeing her without her braids denotes vulnerability, intimacy, and trust.
Combined with Gray’s focus on Leia learning how to be ‘just Leia’ and celebrate life even in the midst of immense suffering, you have a powerful matrix for recontexualizing Leia’s scripting in Return of the Jedi. Leia unbraiding her hair now becomes an act of assertion, of Leia choosing to be just herself over her role as princess or rebel leader. Rather than a demure domestication, Leia quite literally letting her hair down is an act of defiance in the face of immanent doom. She’s choosing to “dance now” (as Breha encourages her in PoA) and embrace joy rather than wallow in fear or anxiety.
And that’s a goddamn gift. Just like Leia Huttslayer. In her two books, Gray has taken the two most sexist moments of the OT and turned them in their head. Bravo, Claudia Gray. Bra-fucking-vo.
Speaking of recontextualizing canon, Breha Organa. After having so long been sidelined to barely an appendage to Leia’s history, Breha finally gets to shine as the badass, strong, intelligent queen she is. Like showing off her pulmonodes (her artificial heart and lungs) as a reminder that “[she] cannot be so easily stopped” by near death experiences. Or her being the ruler of Alderaan while Bail works in the Senate. She may be more ‘conventionally feminine,’ but that doesn’t stop her from being awesome. Because honestly, it shouldn’t (despite what some tv shows seem to think). She’s an excellent bookkeeper, throws a mean banquet cum subversive alliance planning meeting, and an equal mastermind behind the rebellion alongside Bail. In short, she’s everything I wanted Breha to be.
Moreover, Claudia Gray finally gave us the Breha-Leia interactions fans have been clamoring for for years. Just as Bloodline was Leia’s book to grapple with her relationship with her adopted father Bail versus her blood father Anakin, PoA is Leia’s book to engage with her mothers. Bail actually takes a huge backseat to Breha. While this may upset some, given how little time has been devoted to Leia and Breha’s relationship, I’m more than pleased.
Via their interactions, we get a better understanding of Breha’s imprint on Leia. Leia often utilizes a calm exterior to defuse and disarm others, a move she must have learned from Breha, as that seems to be her default. Leia’s moral resolve where other’s might equivocate or take longer to decide, her attraction to danger and fierce determination in the face of it, her quick thinking and instinctive sense of what must be done in tense situations—all these come from her mother Breha.
While there’s less space devoted to Padmé, given Leia does not realize she’s her mother, Gray still manages to work in a truly heartbreaking scene of Leia visiting one of the moons of Naboo. There, she meets the current queen (I totally ship Dalné x Leia btw) as well as (Moff) Quarsh Panaka. When it comes to her biological parents, Leia may be more Anakin’s daughter than Padmé’s. But the trip to Naboo’s moon and the interaction with Queen Dalné invites a comparison between Leia’s determination to do what’s right for her people and her mother’s.
This is a damn near perfect novel, and there’s very little for me to find fault with. As noted above, I disagree with those who find Kier uninteresting or boring, and I actually find the ‘slower’ parts of the novel to be some of the most fascinating. That’s where a lot of the internal character work happens, and I love internal character work.
My one criticism of the novel is actually more to do with New Canon as a whole, namely, it’s treatment of Saw Gerrera. I see the point they’re trying to make overall, that good intentions are not enough (see Amilyn’s arc) but that extremist violence can be counterproductive. However, I’m not sure how well or how consistently this is being done across the various media platforms. PoA’s discussion of Saw’s tactics is more nuanced, and we get to see first hand just how unhelpful rash, violent action can be. However, Rogue One didn’t handle his story nearly as well, and I think that’s poisoned the well a bit for me. Though maybe I’m being too much like Leia and relying on poor first impression. Still, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Some have pointed out that “Strength through joy”—a phrase Leia utters to encourage herself in a tense situation—was the name of a German government agency in the 1930s. However, despite what some of the discourse going around might say, this is not a “Nazi slogan;” it was the name of the German Labor Front’s leisure and tourist board. It may sound like splitting hairs, but a government organization’s name, even one in the Third Reich, is not a “Nazi slogan”; one is nationalistic, the other is specifically a tool of oppression. Nor was this phrase on an equal level to “work makes you free,” the slogan that topped many of the Nazi concentration camps. I admit, my research has been fairly cursory, focusing primarily on the origins of the phrase rather than its aftereffects, so it may be the phrase evolved after the organization fell apart in 1939.
More importantly, regardless of the origins of the phrase, Claudia Gray herself has said she had no idea it was ever used by the Third Reich and is horrified at the associations readers with that background knowledge of the phrase have pointed out. While it is fair to ask questions about why such a phrase was not recognized by anyone else who prepared the book for publication, it seems most likely to be an extremely unfortunate coincidence rather than intentionally pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic (since Leia was played by a Jewish woman).
Final Score: 10/10
As a YA book, it’s an excellent read and a refreshing break from the much more common first person, romance and plot driven narratives. The messaging for teens about resistance, moral complexity, compassion, using privilege to help the marginalized, and standing up in the face of fear and tyranny could not be more necessary in our current political environment.
As a Star Wars novel, it’s unmissable—a captivating glimpse into Leia herself and the start of the Rebellion with Bail, Breha, and Mon Mothma, as well as another layer of nuance to the Imperial/Rebellion continuum.
As a Leia novel, this highly engaging, intimate exploration of an iconic character and her transition from teenage princess to Heir of Alderaan and Rebel leader is required reading. The only thing I can ask for now is that Disney and Lucasfilm contract Claudia Gray to write as many Leia novels as she can stomach. I’ll devour them all.
Images Courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
Kel Protects Everybody in Page
Well, except for herself that is. First published in 2000, Page deals with Kel’s next three years of page training. It takes her on a journey through growing up. It also showcases just how powerful her protective streak is. In this book, Kel protects so many people. While First Test largely focused on distinguishing itself from Song of the Lioness, Page is able to start working on the backbone of this series as a whole. Pierce uses Kel’s protective streak as a way to talk about the various problems in Tortallen society.
Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Pressure of the Past
So. My guys. Ghân-buri-Ghân. I have been low-key dreading this chapter since the start of our re-read, wondering what useful things I could possibly say about a white British professor in the 1950s indulging in an obvious and unfortunate noble savage trope. I mean, there’s a reason that even Peter Jackson—not exactly a bastion of inclusivity and racial sensitivity in his depictions of Tolkien—decided to just leave this bit out.
I’d love to give you a little turn here and reveal that hey-guys-actually-Ghân-buri-Ghân-isn’t-so-bad. But, well… Ghân-buri-Ghân is not great. He could be worse? But that doesn’t seem to be the most useful measuring stick. So instead, let’s take a look at why Ghân-buri-Ghân is in this story at all. And why he is the one to set the stage for one of the most striking passages in Tolkien, where Théoden arrives at the walls of Minas Tirith at dawn and thunders across the Pelennor that only a chapter ago seemed soaked in despair.
Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild Men
Let’s start with the obvious: Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Wild-men are dehumanized and exoticized pretty consistently from the start. Within a page or two of his introduction he is compared to a beast, a rock, and a plant. The Wild-men are “remnants of an older time,” Elfhelm tells Merry. And they are “wild and wary as the beasts.” Ghân-buri-Ghân himself is “gnarled as an old stone” and his beard “straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss.” Merry has difficulty telling him and the other Wild-men apart from each other. And while the Wild-men are never given any explicitly racial characteristics, they are characterized by habits that would be associated with “exoticism” from a European colonial perspective: grass skirts and communication over distances by drums.
To Tolkien’s credit, he does push back against this idea a little bit, largely through Ghân-buri-Ghân’s repeated refusal to be patronized. He repeatedly calls out Éomer for treating him like a child and for interrupting him. He has his own ideas and agenda that extend beyond helping the nice horse lords who happened to stop by. Though on a side-note—Tolkien also manages to make the Wild-men seem preternaturally chill when he casually reveals that they are helping Théoden and his men despite the fact that the Rohirrim, in the past, apparently hunted the Wild-men for sport. Jesus, Rohan.
So. We have a scenario where Ghân-buri-Ghân is given a solid sense of agency in his appearance but is also loaded up with baggage associated with colonial attitudes towards the “uncivilized” peoples of the world. But none of this really answers the question: why is Ghân-buri-Ghân here? Why is he in the story at all? It’d be easy to have the exact same thing happen, but simply have the knowledge of the hidden path lie with one of the Rohirrim or Théoden himself. It would streamline the story and skip the necessity of a whole different group of characters. You could even as gone so far as to simply start the chapter with Théoden’s arrival on the field, and combine it with the next’ chapter’s battle.
Past and Present in The Return of the King
Of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, our next chapter features the imminent fall of Minas Tirith being averted by two sudden arrivals. Théoden and the Rohirrim appear, shepherded there by the Wild-men. And Aragorn and the Dúnedain arrive, backed by the Dead Men of Dunharrow.
Now, I’m not totally sure what this means. I’m open to ideas, and it’s something that I’ll be continuing to think about (the perils of writing an article the day it’s due, sorry friends). But in any case, it seems intriguing to me that both our kings—Théoden and Aragorn—make their triumphant arrival at Minas Tirith thanks solely to the aid of mysterious and unexpected forces of the past. Aragorn calls up a ghost army. Théoden is guided by a people that—as noted in this great article by Ethan Campbell —are directly tied to wodwos, the wild, forest-men of medieval romances like Gawain and the Green Knight. This commonality is only highlighted by Merry’s observation that the Wild-men reminded him of the Púkel-men that lined the way to the Paths of the Dead at Dunharrow.
Neither case is really attributable to plot dynamics. Both of these things could have happened without the last-minute, unexpected assist. So the fact that they do, and that they happen in such tight thematic parallel, makes me think that there must be something more intentional at play. Though it’s hard without more extended interactions with either group, I think it’s at least possible to make the case that this double assist serves as a nice thematic underpinning of Tolkien’s repeated idea that the past is something to be remembered but not necessarily blinded emulated.
While Aragorn’s past is literally what qualifies him for the throne—and what gets him his ghost army—Théoden’s and Rohan’s interactions with their past are much more ambivalent. It’s obvious to the reader that the Wild-men have been mistreated in the past. The same can be said for the treatment of the Dunlendings in The Two Towers. The fact that Minas Tirith is delivered largely thanks to a ghost army who betrayed their leaders in the past and a small group men who have been betrayed themselves, creates an interesting note of moral and historical complexity in a scene that could otherwise easily be read as a standard clash of good and evil.
The Charge of the Rohirrim
Even without that complexity, though: Théoden’s charge and the arrival of the Rohirrim is such a stirring narrative moment. It would have been so easy for it to be cheesy: Widfara’s sudden claims that “the wind is turning” and the dawn is coming are standard fantasy tropes. But man, the execution of it. This is Tolkien at his best.
The Rohirrim’s easy arrival at the wall and painstakingly slow walk across the outer fields makes it feel as if the Riders are literally entering into the tone of the last chapter. The world is filled with darkness, despair, gloom and fire. Merry is horrified. Théoden seemed “to shrink down, cowed by age.” Effort seems wasted, and there seems no place to go. And then, there’s the turn. It’s good enough that I want to look at the whole thing in full:
Then suddenly, Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.
But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.
At that sound the bent shape of the king sprung suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield shall be splintered,
a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer and blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder… Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and he sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire through his veins, and he was borne upon Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! It shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.
It’s such a wonderful, visceral passage, filled with alliteration and momentum. All those B’s and F’s! The way Tolkien moves from sentences structured along the lines of A, but B (Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them) to a series of shorter and shorter clauses creates a syntax that seems to accelerate along with the riders themselves. It’s a near-perfect passage, a bright release after chapters of mounting dread.
- I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on Ghân-buri-Ghân’s diction and speaking patterns. On one side I could sort of see the argument that he’s simply speaking the way anyone would speak in language they aren’t comfortable speaking. Lots of dropped articles, overly-literal translations. But at the same time it just sounds SO MUCH like a stereotype of “uncivilized” speech, like an American Indian in an old western flick. I want to give Tolkien more credit, as a linguist, than indulging in something like that. But I’m not sure it’s warranted.
- Another chapter-related note from Ethan Campbell’s article: Théoden’s speech to his riders before their charge is heavily influenced by the famous Old English poem about the Battle of Maldon. If you are intrigued, Tolkien wrote a fan fiction sequel and published it in a scholarly journal (which is my new professional goal now, I guess).
- Elfhlem and the rest of the company seem to be find with turning a blind eye to Merry’s presence. I’m assuming that they know that Dernhelm is Éowyn as well? It seems pretty likely to me—they have “an understanding,” as Merry notes. And I like the idea of the Rohirrim deciding to cover for her.
- Tolkien continues to get a kick out of the Enemy ironically undermining their own plans through excessive, thoughtless badness. This time through Éomer: “Our Enemy’s devices oft serve us in his despite. The accursed darkness itself has been a cloak to us. And now, lusting to destroy Gondor and throw it down stone from stone, his orcs have taken away my greatest fear. The out-wall could have been held long against us.”
- Merry wished he was a tall rider like Éomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to [Pippin’s] rescue. This is such a charming little sentence that nicely underlines how out of his element Merry is here. He doesn’t even quite know what a tall rider would do to go save some one. Blow a horn? Or something?
- Tolkien taught me this week that “writhe” can be an adjective, as in “writhen mountains.” Into it.
- Prose Prize: … last two paragraphs? Honestly, just go read the last page or two. It’s Tolkien at his best, using his prose to craft a wave of momentum, his tone elevated and archaic but crackling with energy at the same time.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Faramir is wounded, the Pelennor is overrun, the siege of Gondor continues. Off to the south Aragorn is seizing the fleet at Pelagir. Over to the east Frodo gets himself captured and then freed from Cirith Ungol.
- Next time we finally come to the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Bring your own tissues! I am already sad!
All images are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Encroaching Darkness and Endings
Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”
So it’s been a while since I’ve published the last Harry Potter Reread piece, as unfortunately other obligations kept my away from my favourite book series. To recap quickly, the last reread post essentially took a longer look at most of the Trio’s camping trip: Ron majorly freaked out, abandoning his friends, returning to save Harry’s life and earning the right to destroy a Horcurx in the process, Dumbledore’s goodness was questioned more and more and Harry hit what’s probably his lowest point in the books so far. Ultimately, the Trio decides to visit Xenophilius Lovegood, is tricked and trapped by him and only escapes by the skin of their teeth.
A Dangerous Dream
The fallout of the visit in Ottery St. Catchpole seems, at first look, to be much smaller than the fallout from being trapped in Godric’s Hollow. Godric’s Hollow cost Harry his wand, which he thought of as his most powerful weapon against Voldemort. Visiting Xenophilius Lovegood, on the other hand, shows Harry a way to beat Voldemort: becoming the master of the Deathly Hallows and thus, supposedly, death himself. Unfortunately, Harry learning about the Hallows spectacularly backfires. Much like Dumbledore himself, he becomes so obsessed with the idea of the Hallows that he loses track of everything else for a while and starts to neglect his actual mission-
That’s, however, entirely understandable. When the Trio goes to visit Xenophilius, they are entirely out of other ideas, as Hermione admits. Dumbledore left the Trio with a monumental task and, as has been pointed out continuously ever since the seventh book was published, with very little pointers as to how to accomplish said task.
Additionally, Harry has been doubting Dumbledore more and more since his death, especially because of how little help and preparation he has actually received. Believing that Dumbledore actually did place all of the pieces to saving himself in front of him restores at least some of the faith in his mentor, maybe even in the most crucial aspect of his relationship with Dumbledore. Assuming that the Hallows are real and Dumbledore meant for Harry to find them means that Dumbledore didn’t leave him entirely unprepared and is thus proof that Dumbledore cared about him.
That this leads to a fairly massive conflict between Harry and Hermione is about as unsurprising as Harry’s obsession with the Hallows. After all, Hermione’s narrative job is to be the voice of reason and to balance out Harry’s – and sometimes, Ron’s – hotheadedness. Considering that hotheadedness, it’s also no surprise that Harry messes up and uses Voldemort’s name when he’s fighting with Hermione. The Trio then gets captured and taken to Malfoy Manor, where Bellatrix tortures Hermione and reveals the location of the next Horcrux by chance. After their escape and Dobby’s death, this is what Harry chooses to focus on, rather than continuing his quest for the Hallows.
While JKR leads up to this choice quite interestingly, there are a two aspects of the chapters surrounding that decision that annoy me. For one, we never really get Harry’s actual reasoning for why he decides to give up on the Elder Wand. Until the end of the chapter, JKR doesn’t even make it explicitly clear that this is what Harry decided and just alludes to an important decision having been made instead. Then, when she does make it clear that Harry has decided to prioritize information about the next Horcrux over keeping Voldemort from taking the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s grave, Harry simply justifies it by saying that Dumbledore didn’t want him to have the Elder Wand. Later on, JKR lets Harry think that he can’t satisfactorily explain what lead to this decision because the internal arguments that lead to this decision – that JKR never actually put on the page – sound feeble to him in the aftermath of the decision.
Additionally, Hermione had to get tortured for Harry to arrive at the decision that Hermione had been arguing for for weeks. There’s a very “woman in the refrigerator” dynamic about this, though she does survive. But making female characters suffer to further the character growth of male characters is an age old dynamic, and it’s not especially enjoyable to read.
The Goblin issue
What also isn’t especially enjoyable to read is the portrayal of Griphook and goblins in general. Creating a fantasy race that is obsessed with wealth, untrustworthy, cunning, hooked-nosed, and then having them decide to take a neutral standpoint in the war against, well, Wizarding fascism comes with its own host of unfortunate implications.
There’s a very good essay on JStor called “Knockers, Knackers, and Ghosts: Immigrant Folklore in the Western Mines” pointing out the connection between “knockers”, folklore creatures that goblins can be said to be based upon, were explicitly connected to the ghosts of Jewish people. The idea of the goblin as a fantasy creature developed from this point onwards, and essentially became a staple of fantasy literature, much like dwarves, dragons, unicorns, werewolves and giants. According to Ronald James’s essay, the belief that the Knockers were Jewish ghosts was lost when the folklore migrated to the American colonies. However, folk creatures linked to the knockers and goblins especially retained the attributes stereotypically associated with antisemitic caricatures of Jews: greed and untrustworthiness.
The fact that a classic fantasy creature that she uses in her writing is clearly influenced by antisemitic stereotypes is, of course, not at all JKR’s fault. But the way she handles it is. And she does handle it fairly badly, especially considering that with other fantasy creatures, she tries to subvert their typical portrayal. I’ve already written about how successful that endeavor is with giants and werewolves, but with goblins, it seems like she barely even tried. Harry is told not to trust goblins in the very first book already, and although Hermione points out that wizards have marginalised goblins for centuries, that distrust ultimately seems to have been justified.
At the same time, there’s a certain irony to the Trio aiming to deceive a goblin, who is used to deception by wizards and thus inherently doesn’t trust them, and being outsmarted by him. One could, of course, argue – like Harry does himself – that promising Griphook Gryffindor’s sword but never specifying when he’d get it and then keeping it until the Horcruxes are destroyed is technically not a deception. Griphook would have gotten the sword at some point, after all. But it’s still a dishonest way of treating an ally and Griphook taking the sword is just him making sure that he got what was promised to him.
One thing I liked about the interactions between the Trio and Griphook was Hermione passionately telling Griphook about fighting not just for wizards, but against all injustice in the wizarding world. It’s essentially a plea for an universally respectful and fair approach to politics that doesn’t fight against the marginalisation of just one group. The contradiction between that appeal and the Trio’s actual way of treating Griphook is pretty obvious, however.
I do get why Harry decides to act the way he does. I also get why he uses the Imperius curse when breaking into Gringotts. It’s essentially a “the end justify the means”-situation. In Harry’s opinion, fighting Voldemort justifies acting in ways that he would normally condemn. Considering what Voldemort is meant to represent, I don’t have a problem with that.
What I do have a problem with is the narrative framing of Harry’s usage of the Unforgivable Curses: there is no moment in which Harry struggles with having used the Imperius curse and when he tortures Amycus Carrow, it’s present as a moment of strength and victory. McGonagall even calls it “gallant”. And while Harry using the Imperius curse in Gringotts can be read as either seeming like an absolute necessity to finish the mission in the moment when he uses it or as something that Griphook manipulated him into, there’s no excuse or reason behind him using the Cruciatus on Carrow.
Considering how much effort JKR put into showing how horrible both the Cruciatus curse and the Carrows are, this could have easily been framed as a moment that Harry breaks, repays the cruelty the Wizarding World has shown him with cruelty, and actually emotionally struggles with. It would have even been fairly easy to include a short scene in which Harry, on the way back to the Room of Requirement from the Great Hall, doubts his actions. There is, after all, a scene in which Harry doubts whether he is turning into Dumbledore, who doesn’t trust anyone, when he is faced with the choice of letting the other DA members help. And how great would it have been if Harry had wondered for a moment what the war was doing to him, realised the risk of it turning him cruel and angry and decided to make a conscious effort to never be cruel? But unfortunately, that’s not the route JKR goes.
The trio breaking into the Ministry to steal Slytherin’s locket on from Umbridge is, as I already discussed, one of my favourite parts of Deathly Hallows. It’s a perfectly executed “undercover mission gone wrong”-plot but with the darker twist of showing what a turn for the worse the Ministry has taken. Something similar is true of the break-in at Gringotts: while it doesn’t go as in depth with its description of the horribleness as the Ministry scenes, there’s the gut-wrenching scene of a man attacking Bellatrix, Voldemort’s right hand, for taking away his children. It’s an act of complete desperation, underlined by the fact that people without wands are treated as less than human.
The break-in at Gringotts has the same basic structure as the break-in into the Ministry: there is a long period of planning, of which the readers see fairly little, there are unforeseen complications during the very first stage of the operation that force the heroes to improvise: splitting up in the Ministry, Imperiusing Travers and Bogrod, which are mostly caused by the heroes own unpreparedness – not doing more research on the ministry workers they are impersonating, not realising that the goblins know that Bellatrix’ wand was stolen. This ultimately forces them into heroic acts to escape, like freeing the Muggleborns who are awaiting trial and the imprisoned dragon. That’s not really surprising: it’s essentially the classic heist-movie plot. Additionally, while both break-ins allow the heroes to accomplish their goal of retrieving a Horcrux, they also set them back.
What’s interesting is that although the basic structure of the chapters is the same and they both work with very similar premises, the break-in at the Ministry feels a lot less triumphant than the break-in at Gringotts. One the one hand, I think it’s because the Ministry chapter explores the dynamics of a Voldemort-ruled Wizarding world much more in depth than the Gringotts break-in. On the other hand, I think it’s because it’s clearer what the break-in at Gringotts is leading up to. The goal of destroying Voldemort is no longer in the far-off distance. Of course, it’s entirely possible that that’s an impression I have based on the fact that I’m reading the books for the hundredth time and that first-time readers perceive it entirely differently.
And Familiar Faces
The second-to-last part of Deathly Hallows brings back a whole bunch of characters that have essentially disappeared for either most of the book or even most of the series. Griphook and Ollivander, for example, were both introduced in Philosopher’s Stone but essentially became completely irrelevant afterwards. That they returned and became crucial in driving the plot forward in the final book is a fairly classic JKR move and, as I’ve mentioned before, one of my favourite aspects of the series.
Then there’s, of course, Dobby. Another thing I’ve already mentioned earlier during this project is that I never really got the love many fans of the series have for him and instead have been rather torn about him. That’s probably why his death isn’t especially high on my list of sad scenes in Deathly Hallows, even though I’m able to see why it’s an objectively sad scene. After all, Dobby engages in the ultimate act of rebellion for a house-elf, turning against his (former) masters, and pays for it with his life. And Dobby is set up to just be an unequivocally morally good being: he is loyal to the point of blindness, he has no intention to harm anyone, he is willing to make sacrifices and push past his own fears to achieve his goals. At the same time, I find his portrayal rather ambiguous. It’s clear that his admiration of Harry is based more on the way Harry treats him than on believing in the values Harry represents and Dobby’s always shown to be rather child-like intellectually, to the point of being incapable of thinking his actions through logically. Looking at the series and his role in it as a whole, his death seems like the logical conclusion of the way his character is set up.
Another character development that seems like the logical endpoint of a journey is Neville, though that could and should have been better executed, in my opinion. As much as Neville is shy, awkward and clumsy at the beginning of the series, the seeds for his great entrance in Deathly Hallows as leader of Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts have been there ever since he confronted the Trio in the common room. That he had it in him to be a fierce fighter if necessary became clear when he insisted to go to the Ministry to rescue Sirius and held his ground against the Death Eaters.
Unfortunately, he fades into the background for most of The Half-Blood Prince and is essentially irrelevant in Deathly Hallows until he reappears. That means that his development from a guy who’s usually shy but good under pressure to a complete badass who stands up to violent Death Eaters to the point where they consider murdering him happens entirely off-page. It’s not unbelievable for him to develop in this direction, but it would have been better writing to actually see more of this development.
Which is a statement that is true of the entire Hogwarts-subplot. Other people have suggested in the comments that Deathly Hallows would have been better if it had been split between the narrator accompanying Harry and someone who’s at Hogwarts, but I disagree. I think moving away from the classic school setting into a underground resistance setting as well as splitting the narrative focus between settings for more than one chapter would have been a too radical break from the established style of the series. However, JKR finding a way to keep Harry in touch with people in Hogwarts – Aberforth giving a piece of the two-way mirror to one of the members of Dumbledore’s Army, for example – would have made it possible for the readers and Harry to be up to date on what is happening at Hogwarts without creating the narrative split. Additionally, Harry knowing what was going on at Hogwarts and being torn between his actual mission and wanting to help his friends would have been amazing and heart-breaking to read about.
The next piece of the “Harry Potter Reread Project” takes on the final bit of Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort returns to Hogwarts, “possessed f that cold, cruel sense of purpose that preceded murder”.