Not a great outing for our hobbits. Within a day of being nearly murdered by a barrow-wight, our hobbits are remarkably lackadaisical in “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.” After some drinks, stories, impromptu singing, and a round of jaunty dancing on a table, Frodo pulls a Bilbo and nearly blows the whole mission. Let’s all take a moment to quietly applaud Strider for not taking one look at this fellowship of hobbits, booking it out of there, and saving himself some grief. Just kidding! Sort of!
Bree and the Prancing Pony
For me, the most intriguing part of this chapter – which is a transitional one in a lot of ways – was the location of Bree. It’s not a place I had thought much about before. At the start of the chapter Bree seems to be a nice sort of utopian village:
The Men of Bree were brown-haired, broad, and rather short, cheerful and independent: they belonged to nobody but themselves; but they were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants of the world about them than was (or is) usual with Big People.
Bree is presented in a way that must have been very impressive to our hobbits. It’s a kind of crossroads: Bree is bisected not only by the East Road the hobbits had traveled on, but by an ancient road leading south to Isengard and Rohan. Rangers roam the countryside and stop in the Prancing Pony to tell stories (but also keep their distance). The hobbits claim to be the oldest settlement of their kind in the entirety of Middle Earth, and the men of Bree claim to be descended from the first men. Even when the Numenorians returned over the great sea, the men of Bree claim, “they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.”
Bree seems pretty much perfect at first glance: lots of history, a decent amount of diversity and worldliness, all paired with a warm friendliness. As soon as the hobbits show up they are showered with attention and drinks, and a fellow group of Underhills decide to adopt Frodo as their long-lost cousin.
But it’s amazing how quickly all of this falls apart. The worldliness and vibrant travel scene around Bree seems to be a thing of the past: the north-south road is overgrown with weeds, and Barliman is surprised to find a group of men traveling on it – much less the group of dwarves coming in from the east. When it’s mentioned that vague problems in the south could create growing waves of refugees coming to Bree, “the local inhabitants did not look pleased at the prospect.” And most clearly, as soon as Frodo pulls his disappearing trick near the chapter’s end, the town’s friendliness evaporates immediately. Any sign of oddity does not play well in Bree (even the Rangers, to whom everyone seems sufficiently accustomed, are kept at arm’s distance). For a place that seems worlds away from the culture of the Shire, it proves to be not all that different at its core.
Though we’re far away from the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, this depiction of Bree presents a nice thread of thematic continuity: just like the hobbits’ earlier stops, Bree proves to be not what it first appears, and deceptively dangerous (and in a nice twist, this trend will be turned on its head in the next chapter when the apparently dangerous Strider turns out to a godsend for the hobbits. With this twist, the next stage of the adventure is launched).
The Guy Who’s Gonna Save Middle Earth Gets a Table Dancing Scene, Thank God
Though I was rather hard on our hobbits at the start of this essay, they all get nice moments in “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.” Pippin gets his first solid ‘fool of a Took’ moment when he starts telling the story of Bilbo’s birthday party – correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems like Pippin’s first actual misstep in the story. While Jackson’s adaptations tend to portray him as a bit dim-witted, Pippin’s problems seem to stem more from the fact that he’s very light-hearted (which I’m sure will serve him well further along). Sam continues to be sweet and relatable. I love that he was able to deal with a barrow wight last chapter, and he admits here that “he had imagined himself meeting giants taller than trees, and other creatures even more terrifying, sometime or other in the course of his journey,” but the idea of a strange, three-story inn is just too much for him to handle after a long day of traveling. We’ve all been there, Sam. I am happy that he got some good beer, at least. And Merry, once again, proves to have by far the best judgment when he decides to stay out of the common area and have a nice quiet night by the fire. He’s a hobbit with a head on his shoulders (and, in avoiding loud bars in favor of quiet sitting, a hobbit after my own heart).
Frodo, though, has the most interesting characterization in this chapter. At first I was just annoyed with him: he acts rashly by just going out into the common area, and things get worse from there. After fearing Pippin is going to come too close to matters of the Ring, Frodo decides to divert attention by jumping up on a table, singing a lengthy nursery rhyme, and spontaneously creating a dance routine. He promptly dances too hard, falls off a table, and puts on the Ring in front of a giant crowd of people. PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, FRODO.
It’s a dumb move, definitely, but it also makes some sense. It also does a nice job of highlighting Frodo’s character, and why Bilbo would have felt him to be a kindred spirit. After a moment of awkwardness, Frodo just dives right into the performance. And he clearly loves it when he gets an ovation and calls for an encore. It’s a very Bilbo-esque moment of self-satisfaction (particularly given the crowd plied him with some extra drinks), and the sudden turn into danger it takes fits well the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring’s tendency to flit back and forth between the whimsical and the very serious.
A strange-looking, weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud… He threw back his hood, showing a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.
And, of course, we finally get to meet Strider! We learn relatively little about him so far, other than that he has some mysterious interest in the hobbits, and that he is dreamy. He’s also more teasing than I expected him to be: he stays very hands-off, letting Frodo handle his own problems, and seeming rather unconcerned when things go so poorly.
- We get a first hint of some racial issues that will become more prominent (if I remember correctly) in The Lord of the Rings when the bad guys in the Prancing Pony are described as “swarthy.” This is obviously not great, but I want to wait until I have a bit more to work with before I say anything in depth about it. Any thoughts?
- Poor Butterbur is useless in this chapter, though pretty delightful. His memory is truly terrible, and he needs to either start writing himself notes or hire a larger staff so that he is not forced to think about everything at the same time and remember none of it.
- The song in this chapter is – by far – one of my least favorites in Tolkien’s legendarium. When I was a kid I tried to memorize all of the songs in The Lord of the Rings (yeeeaaahhh). While I really enjoyed this overall, I distinctly remember this one being a chore. Tom Shippey (on pp. 25-26 of the linked book) has apparently argued that this is Tolkien being a total nerd, and is his attempt to recreate a “proto” version of the nursery rhyme (a longer version from which only our modern ditty survives). This doesn’t make me like it much more, but does make me feel warm & fuzzy things in my heart about Tolkien.
- Prose Prize: This isn’t one of Tolkien’s more flowery chapters, but I did like this: They were the original inhabitants and were the descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoil of the Elder Days; but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass. Tolkien is excellent at conveying distance in time.
- Our art this week is from good old standbys Jian Guo and Ted Nasmith.
- Unfortunately I won’t be around in the comment section for a while – I’m going on an internet-less (!) camping trip tomorrow and won’t be back til early June. But please discuss away! I’ll definitely drop in when I come back.
Hope and Despair at the Pyre of Denethor
Welcome back, Tolkien friends! I have been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading this chapter. Denethor is one of the most interesting characters in The Lord of the Rings, but his path to despair is also one of the most critically well-tread. For my part, at least, the definitive character study on the guy has already been written. Who am I, really, to try to top the idea that Denethor is the Richard Nixon of Middle-earth ? So please, go there, go read it.
Daniel Stride nicely outlines what’s up with Denethor. He’s traditional and old-fashioned to a fault, he’s a political realist in a word that has little respect for such philosophies, he’s insecure to an extent that it manifests as paranoia. He is lonely: his wife died long ago, he lost one son only a few weeks back, now another lies dying at his feet. And seeing his line die out, and black sails sliding up the Anduin in the surface of the palantír, Denethor does what he’s famous for in The Lord of the Rings: he despairs.
The Basis of Choice
Stride’s article is so great at explaining who Denethor is, and why he does what he does. But there’s more to be said surrounding how Denethor’s choices fit into Tolkien’s broader world and its themes. And it starts before Denethor even appears on page—when Pippin finds Gandalf in the wake of the Black Rider’s departure, and begs him to save Faramir.
“Can’t you save Faramir?”
“Maybe I can,” said Gandalf, “but if I do, then others will die, I fear. Well, I must come, since no other help can reach him. But evil and sorrow will come of this. Even in the heart of our stronghold the Enemy has the power to strike us: for his will it is that is at work.”
It’s such a Tolkien-y choice: an echo of Aragorn’s choice to chase Merry and Pippin rather than continue on the assumed route of the quest, of Frodo’s choice to spare Gollum and trust him rather than to leave him tied up in the name of his own safety (and Middle-earth’s). All of these are open to criticism. That Aragorn’s choice to follow one set of hobbits put at risk the “more important” set. That Frodo’s faith in Sméagol’s redemption was at the potential expense of all Middle-earth. Or that Gandalf’s choice to save Faramir doomed Théoden and countless unnamed riders who died in the shadow of the Witch-King. They are criticisms—particularly the last—for which I have quite a bit of sympathy.
In Tolkien’s moral world, of course, these choices are correct. Good choices aren’t based on strategic sacrifice or the rational extrapolation of possibilities. Instead, a good choice is a rejection of utilitarianism, the choice of a person over an abstraction. It’s not on your shoulders to map out the potential paths of the world and choose the best one. You simply do what you can in the moment. You save the person you love. And that brings us around to Denethor.
Hope is But Ignorance
Denethor, as everyone in The Lord of the Rings, is given a choice. His final scene in the Houses of the Stewards at Rath Dínen is a tight parallel to Gandalf’s arrival at Meduseld to confront the aging Théoden, full of disdain and despair. “Take courage, Lord of the Mark,” he says. “For better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?”
Gandalf offers a similar choice to Denethor, another aging ruler who’s lost a son: set aside his “madness” and return to the world and those directly around you. After all, he tells the steward, “there is much that you can yet do.” Both men waver for a moment in the face of their choice. And then each turns in opposite ways.
Hope, in Tolkien, has a direct interplay with knowledge—or presumed knowledge—of the world. Théoden slips into despair as he’s fed information from Wormtongue. And Denethor makes his grand assertion of defiant despair as soon as he whips out his palantír and reveals what he’s seen.
“I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labor in healing! Go forth and fight. Vanity. For a little while you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that rises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. Even now the wind of they hope cheats thee and wafts up the Anduin a fleet of black sails. The West has failed. It is time to depart for all you would not be slaves.”
My first time reading this chapter this time around, it was tempting to see Denethor’s despair as simply a condemnation of overreaching knowledge and pride. Denethor sought for knowledge about his pay grade and destroyed himself; the faithful little hobbits, oblivious to the world and its highest machinations, are rewarded by the powers that be for their plucky ignorance.
But knowledge is a tricky thing in The Lord of the Rings. It’s not condemned or written off as shady goal of upstarts who don’t know their place. Pippin’s curiosity is an asset (mostly). Faramir’s curiosity to learn more of the world under Gandalf’s tutelage—though distrusted by Denethor—is framed as a virtue. But it’s also so dangerous: learn a little, and you think you know a lot. Because Denethor does know a lot about the current situation, more than anyone else save perhaps Aragorn and Gandalf. His palantír assured him of that. And this knowledge sets him down the path of two Tolkienian (…?) flaws.
Pride and Despair
“Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, and west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy in my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With thy left hand you wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger from the North to supplant me. But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am a Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to the dotard chamberlain of an upstart.”
Denethor’s most obvious failing on his road to despair is simply the misinterpretation of the information he’s given. He distorts information wildly through his own presuppositions and fears, his insecurity a permanent lens on the palantír. Pippin, to Denethor, could only be a spy: why else would Gandalf bring him? Aragorn could only be an affront, an attempt to destabilize, change, uproot. Sauron’s army must be infinite and unstoppable; black sails could only be the Corsairs of Umbar coming upstream to complete the final sack of the city. A little information, in short, makes Denethor think he knows too much.
This, for Tolkien, is a forgivable flaw. Pride is something that can be worked against, insecurities are something that can be overcome. The two in tandem always make for a yikes combo, but hey! who are we to be too eager to deal out judgement in Middle-earth? Even the very wise cannot see all ends. And it’s there, really, that Denethor gets into trouble. It’s not knowledge that trips him up into despair so much as the flaw that plagued both Sauron and Saruman: a failure of imagination.
The End Beyond All Doubt
“What then would you have,” said Gandalf, “if your will could have its way?”
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” answered Denethor, “and in the days of my long-fathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honor abated.”
Denethor’s failure, in the end, is not so much rooted in knowledge, fear, or pride (though none of them helped). Rather, his despair is rooted in myopic certainty. The world, for Denethor, falls apart or it stands. It continues on, like old rusty clockwork, powered by honor and tradition, continuity and peace: having been saved by him, by Gondor. Or it is destroyed. These are the only options Denethor can imagine, in a clear-cut world built on rickety scaffolding in which Denethor has unshakeable certainty. Gandalf himself hinted at the danger all the way back at the Council of Elrond, when defending his plan for the Ring: “It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”
Denethor, of course, thinks he does. And he becomes, in short, is the deepest sort of Tolkien tragedy: he can’t even imagine the eucatastrophe. He lives in a world where they are inconceivable. And it’s this element that sentences him to failure without redemption in Tolkien’s moral universe.
This is something that, on one level, I get. In Middle-earth, and in what I’ve gathered from Tolkien’s Catholicism, such a failure of imagination is not simply a flaw but a wholesale rejection of reality. A rejection of eucatastrophe is putting a crack in the whole nature of the world. But at the same time—while not condoning Denethor’s unilateral decision to set his sick son on fire—it’s impossible for me not to be sad at his end, or not to wish that he had gotten some kind of comfort, redemption, or solace. Denethor’s story is such a lonely one. And while much of that was his own making, the fact that he truncates his own story so definitively and in such isolation makes him a tragedy that’s unique in The Lord of the Rings, and one that will always make me sad.
- Potentially-controversial opinion time: I do wonder if Gandalf was too harsh on Denethor. When Faramir calls out his name in a dream, Denethor “started as one waking from a trance, and the flame died in his eyes, and he wept.” I am a softy but this seems like a moment where Denethor could maybe have been comforted and pulled back from despair through love for his son. Gandalf decides to go for the, uh, hardball route. He tells Denethor to go fight on the Pelennor and that maybe he’d see his son later if they should both manage to survive. I see where Gandalf is going with this. But whenever I read this section it feels like a lost opportunity.
- When Pippin hears the horns of the Rohirrim, they “break his heart with joy.” Afterwards he is unable “to hear a horn blow in the distance without tears starting in his eyes.” This is lovely, and make me think Pippin will be a very sweet old-man hobbit.
- It’s interesting to me that Denethor goes up in flames and envisions “The West” as burning into ash. I wonder if Denethor, well-versed in Gondorian and Númenorean lore, used this metaphor purposefully as an inverse of Númenor’s historic trouble with flooding. Or maybe it was because Sauron had a big volcano.
- Tolkien had some interesting thoughts on Denethor in his letters (letter 183). “Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and apposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a “political” leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.” In some ways Denethor feels like a modern leader in a rather un-modern story.
- I was lucky enough to be over in England earlier this month for an academic conference (medievalists of all stripes gather in Leeds each year to drink beer, talk history, and pad that CV, ammirite?). On the long bus ride back down to my flight in London I stopped by Oxford and its Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit at the Bodleian Library. If you happen to be in the area, it’s a really lovely exhibit (with a dangerously great gift shop). I was especially struck but how good an artist Tolkien was, and how frequently his works would stray into the geometric or quasi-psychedelic. I want to post them here but I fear the wrath of the Tolkien estate, so just go here to get the info you need to google braver bloggers who laugh in the face of copyright violation.
- The next road trip, inspired by managing super-editor Kori, will presumably have to be to Bloomington, Indiana to find more information on this Lord of the Rings script written by John Boorman. I am both slightly relieved and utterly crushed that this was never produced.
- Prose Prize: It’s a dialogue-heavy chapter, and my favorite is probably Denethor’s response to Gandalf’s query on what Denethor actually wants, from above. It’s antithetical to Tolkien’s views but also cased in such an elevated language that it almost feels noble. Perfect for Denethor.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: We’re in near-exact parallel to last chapter, which works nicely. All of this occurs as Théoden makes his stand and Éomer experiences eucatastrophe.
- Mytly’s Corner of of Wanton Cruelty to Punctuation is having its definition stretched this week: no dramatically long sentences with six semicolons but I was deeply annoyed by “for his will it is that is at work” from Gandalf’s comment to Pippin above. Tolkien! Please. “it is that is?” Why? Stop. Wanton cruelty to syntax and aesthetics.
- Tired by this week’s downer of a chapter? Please come back next week for some steamy Faramir-Éowyn romancing as they stand on battlements and think about hope. Yeah!
Art Credits: All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. All other art, in order of appearance, is from Ted Nasmith, Lorenzo Daniele, and Peter Xavier Price.
Faerie Tale Aged Poorly
Once again before starting this article I must confess that I do not own Faerie Tale in its original langage. This shouldn’t be a problem for the following article which as more to do with the story than with the style of the book. Nevertheless because of it some names might sounds strange. I apologize for the inconvenience.
There is nothing worse, speaking of books, than getting utterly disappointed by a book that seems written for you. The other day, when I pitched the story of Faerie Tale to my best friend, he asked me playfully “why are all the books you are reading always so you?”. And that is true. On paper, Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale had everything to please me. Folklore, slightly gothic ambiance, horrific set-up, fantasy, a focus on a coming of age story, an entrapment situation… Everything! I even read it in the best mental conditions possible to welcome the story warmly.
And yet as I progressed in the story, an increasing amount of elements irked me. Until the mystery of the ex-owner of the house was revealed. I wasn’t just irked at this point. I was laughing. Laughing because what I was reading was laughingly bad.
In the end if I were to grade Faerie Tale I would give it 5/10 because there were things I really like so it doesn’t deserve to be under average. And I wanted to like this book. Still, after my encounter with the laughingly bad twist I came back on everything that irked me about Faerie Tale. It’s not good and it doesn’t deserve more than the strict average.
But maybe there is more to Faerie Tale. Maybe it isn’t a disappointing book after all. Maybe it simply aged poorly.
The Hastings in Fairy Land
Faerie Tale follows an American family, the Hastings, relocating to the father’s hometown in the 1980’s. The Hastings are five. Phil, the father, is a popular screenplay writer. Gloria, his wife, was an actress without real career who dropped everything to take care of her sons. Gabbie, Phil’s daughter from a first marriage, is a young college student who came to spend the summer with her father. And finally there are the twins Sean and Patrick. The Hastings are rich, in the case of Gabbie crazy rich. Is it important to the plot? Not really. If anything, it makes the Hastings’ will to endure what is thrown at them weirder. But it allows the initial situation and it’s mention a lot (A LOT) so I figured I should mention it.
Thanks to their sweet sweet money, the Hastings bought the house and land of an eccentric German who passed away without heir. On the land stands the Hill of the Elven King, a place, which in the local legends, is renowned for hiding the faerie court. Of course, as it turned out, it isn’t a legend and the fairies living there are trapped and want nothing more than to be free. And for that they are more than ready to manipulate the Hastings into helping them (I guess they are also doing all that they are doing because they are fairies and therefore assholes).
After several very severe incidents (Gabbie being nearly rapped, the family cat being gutted, Sean being swapped for a changeling) the Hastings (let’s be perfectly honest Patrick and Phil) helped by some secondary characters (all men) defeat the evil fairie. They also make a pact with the less evil one and the status quo is restored. The world is saved.
Still, the international secret organisation that secretly rules our world makes everyone forget everything about what happened, except for Patrick and Sean. Then, the Hastings are magically manipulated into moving back to California.
Everything for Nothing
Here you already might see one of the issue with Faerie Tale. What was the point of the books? We have five main protagonists and two are virtually unchanged by the 370 pages of development they just undertook. Gabbie has development (and I will come back to it later), but it isn’t linked to the faerie business. So if we exclude the twins, what was the point of the story?
Most of the characters, who weren’t really interesting to begin with, didn’t progress because of it. The villains—who are unnamed, unseen, and whose goal was already reached at the beginning—have already won. It wasn’t scary. It was mildly distracting (I might be harsher with my books that I am with my TV-shows, but it’s like that). And it didn’t have any sort of profound meaning.
So yeah, the plot of the book has its issues already. But that’s not the only problem with Faerie Tale.
Being a story of urban fantasy (rather rural fantasy… please someone stops me) Faerie Tale deals with myths that are real.
Fairies as archetypes
One the things I really liked in Faerie Tale is that the fairies are fairies. They aren’t human and don’t have a human sense of morality. Their essence isn’t the same as ours. And frankly it’s refreshing. Considering the current craze around fairies in YA where the fairies are mainly pseudo medieval humans with powers and a penchant for misogyny, I am delighted to be facing creatures that are really different and troubling.
The fairies in Faerie Tale are archetypes. They play a role and when they have been beaten, another steps into their shoes assuming their role to the point of taking their identity. They are immutable. And they are monsters that are egoist and takes pleasure from human inconvenience and misery. Some of the members of the fairy courts are humans, but they are humans who have suffered the corrupted influence of the fairies for years. They are unhappy, twisted, wrong, etc.
So, Feist did create an interesting fairy court. The only complaint I have is that it is made pretty explicit in the book that the degree of horror inflicted on the Hastings is linked to the will of the fairy to break free. Meaning that if the master plan wasn’t set into motion, the family would just have suffered harmless pranks. None of the pranks they suffer in the book are harmless (except one) and they are all linked to the master plan. Which leads me to believe that this fairy court is super lazy on a daily basis. But that’s just a detail.
One folklore to rule them all?
My main issue with Faerie Tale is the refusal to explain where the fairy court stands in a complex cosmology. I mean the book states that fairies, as conceptualized in Ireland and Germany, exist. Apparently Christianity might be correct too, since Christian prayers are efficient against fairies. But what about other religions that have different folklore traditions (Islam, Judaism)? Are their prayers efficient against fairies, too? Do their folkloric monsters (Djinn, Golem) exist too? The story explains how the fairies were brought to America, but what happened to creatures from the various Native American folklores? Did they ever existed? Or is this a case of ‘Germano-Celtic culture was right all along and every other belief is superstition’?
A good example of that is the presence of White Ladies in Faerie Tale. You see, in France White Ladies are probably one of our most famous folklore creatures. The issue is that they aren’t fairies. They are revenants. They announce death (or they might lead to yours if you see them, it depends on the legend you are considering). The myth is old and persistent. The Louvres and Versailles were and still are known to have their White Lady. The current urban legend of a vanishing hitchhiker has been fed in France by the White Lady mythos (most of these stories in France are about women who warm you about the place they died leading you to your death or avoiding it, it depends).
So when I saw the White Ladies of the books depicted as sexualized fairies in a fashion reminiscent of the Brides of Dracula, you have no idea how disappointed I was. “They suck” was my honest reaction.
To be perfectly honest, the issue I have with Faerie Tale‘s lack of a complex cosmology that refused to acknowledge the diversity of myths might have been enhanced by the fact I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods just after. Still, there is something missing here. And it’s annoying.
If I tell you a story put fairies and a conspiracy theory together, you might answer me that doesn’t sound like a good mix. And you are right. As a general rule, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. I think they are way of shifting the blame from the actual people responsible for the situation to someone else (sometimes a disadvantaged minority) and preventing systematic changes. I also think that they are often anti-science. If we add to that our current political context of fake news and post-truth, I would find any story cheaply relying on it distasteful.
Unfortunately that’s what Faerie Tale does. The ex-owner of the house was a member of a secret organization using fairy magic to rule the world. The members of this organization are super rich and super powerful and they use all this power to remain secret and keep the fairies from hurting humanity. Wait… Are they the good guys? No, they aren’t because they are still a secret evil organization that rules the world for its own gain and that’s all… They just want to be rich and powerful. They are the GAFA without internet and with pixie dust.
They are uninteresting. They are unoriginal. They don’t add a lot to the story considering that all their influence undoes the story. From a storytelling perspective, they are useless, stereotypical, and dumb. This is the laughably bad distasteful part of Faerie Tale.
Faerie Tale’s characters aren’t unforgettable. Far from it. Every time I sensed something interesting could be done with one of them their potential was utterly wasted. But I will focus on two main issue in this section
Money, money, money
Thank you Faerie Tale for making me feel like Lady Violet Crawley.
Never would I have thought that a book about fairies would talk so much about money. Never would I have thought that characters could talk so much about money without having their story center around it. The Hastings are rich. Gabbie is more or less the equivalent of an heir to the Rockefeller fortune. Despite that they are presented as humble people. I mean, the book tells us they are humble and they do welcome everyone in their home.
But everyone must be ready to hear about how much money they have. Phil explains to a perfect stranger (let’s be honest, he spoke to him twice before this) how much his daughter is rich. They have their own lawyer, their own agent. They can pay a doctor to come to and do a study specifically for them… But rest assured that they don’t spoil their children and raise them to value real life. They just allow their daughter to drop out from college because she won’t have any problem starting again later. They buy a house on a whim. They only postpone their children’s extravagant fancies to teach them rationality. They dropped a promising career because they don’t think the story they were writing was good enough…
You know normal stuff from normal people who aren’t literally made of money. How did they get this money? Well Gabbie inherited it. Phil wrote extremely popular movies for Hollywood. What are they doing with this money? Phil is doing normal things for an 80’s American: not paying taxes that would finance public universities, public healthcare, etc and indulging in a lifestyle of over-consumption. Gabbie is buying horses and an expensive car (paying for her little brother’s treatment) and not learning how to do anything significant for the companies that create her fortune. Relatable stuff that will definitively make them sympathetic to an average audience.
Sure, it could be forgotten in the narrative. But they talk about money all the time! This is ridiculous. You just want to shake them violently and scream “You are rich idiots without real problems who put their children at risk and need to move out of the bloody estate!”.
This constant mention of the Hastings’s fortune ended up making them despicable in my eyes.
Faerie Tale has a deficiency of female characters. If I had to give a percent of the gender balance of the book, I would say that 65% of the characters are men and 35% are women. To give you an example, there are four named doctors in this book, the four of them have dialogue, all of them are men. Among the fairies, four of them are women. All of them are sexualized and none of them really have an agency linked to the master plan. The three most important fairies are men. And despite Gabbie having a strong sexual reaction to them, none of them are describe in any way as sexualized as the female fairies are.
Among important female characters, we have Gabbie, Gloria, and Phil’s university mentor. Let’s start with the last. The first thing of importance to note is that I have forgotten her name. But let’s put that aside. This character could be an interesting one. Indeed, having a woman scholar who guided several male characters in their literary/professional progression is pretty progressive. Having men being inspired by a woman’s work and ethic is great. It’s a nice reversion of the “I don’t want to fuck him, I want to be him” trope, and I think it essential for boys and for girls to see it done more often in media. However, your devoted servant would argue that it isn’t that well done here.
Phil’s university mentor has a maternal relationship with both the men she has tutored/is tutoring. She even misses the true calling for one of them: being a dialogist. And of course the person who notices this oversight is… a man. In general, she doesn’t do a lot of mentoring despite the evident respect both her students have for her. A huge missed opportunity.
Now to Gloria. Gloria isn’t a bad character. Once again she had a lot of potential. She is the only one of the adults Hastings that feel there might be something deeply wrong with the estate. She even witnesses a fairie’s activity, which allows her to connect with Patrick after Sean’s disappearance. Clearly, or at least from my point of view, Gloria was built to be the parent who ultimately assists/saves Patrick in his quest to get his brother back. But in the end, it’s Phil who gets the mission of finding his sons. Phil, who never showed any instinct for the supernatural and who had no progression—no real mental progression—linked to it. Why from a narrative perspective is Phil chosen to go and save his sons? Well I guess it’s because that’s what fathers do, while mothers fall into a hysterical state…
Finally, let’s discuss Gabbie. Gabbie is an 18-year-old woman currently studying in California. We have already discussed Gabbie’s financial situation so we won’t do it any further here. There are a lot of things done properly with Gabbie: a subversion of the spoiled rich girl trope, a good relationship with her step-mother, a positive treatment of the rape attempt she suffers, and a positive depiction of her sexuality. Still, no character infuriates me as much as Gabbie.
Gabbie has two important arcs that are connected: her love story with Jack and her relation with her mother. You see, Gabbie’s mother married Phil young. They had a bad year professionally and Gabbie’s mother also broke with her family, who didn’t approve of her lifestyle (she was disinherited). Then Gabbie was born and her mother changed her profession to journalism, more precisely to be a war reporter. She then decided that her career was more important than her daughter and husband, leading to her leaving Phil and not taking care of Gabbie. Here I must emphasize that Phil also put his career before his daughter and Gabbie was left to her maternal grandmother, who raised her.
Now that her grandmother is dead and she is an adult, Gabbie has bonded with her father but not with her mother. Partially because her mother, too caught up in her career and in her importance for the “American left” (yes, that phrase is in the book; take it as you want because I really don’t know what I am supposed to do with it), hasn’t extended any hand for her daughter to grab. Therefore, Gabbie’s arc deals a lot with her coming to terms with her insignificance to her mother.
This is once again an incredibly important narrative to explore. Once again, it’s a gigantic wasted opportunity. The career of Gabbie’s mother is constantly denigrated by the book. Her principals and ideologies are ridiculed when Gabbie learns that her mother is to marry a French millionaire (who is also a pedophile since he hit on Gabbie when she was 15) that she should normally hate if if she wasn’t a total hypocrite. As a consequence, Gabbie has no trouble and no regret leaving at her mother behind her since she is irredeemable. Indeed, none of the reasons Gabbie’s mother had to abandon her daughter have any sort of value. (Note that Phil, who also left his daughter behind for his career, only has to be a decent human being to be allowed back in her life with open arms.)
Therefore Gabbie has no trouble to make the decisions she ends up making. She decides to marry a man she has known for 5 months (her first sexual partner if I might add). He is an aspiring writer being tutored in college by the same tutor as Phil. She also decide to stop her studies for now. Does she have a better idea of who she wants to be as a person, except than being Jack’s wife? No, but I guess it’s okay because she is going to be someone’s wife; what else could she aspire to be? In the end, Gabbie rushes into marriage without knowing who she is, with a man who is a younger version of her father (yes, Jack even admires Phil). She is making exactly the same choices her mother did, but she’ll be fine because she is being a good sport about it, unlike her mother.
I can’t even begin to explain how much I despise this narrative. Even if it hasn’t directly touched me, the idea of coming to term with one’s insignificance to one’s mother is something that has influenced a lot of people I love in my family. I can guarantee you that it’s not fixed by making all the same choices as your mother but not being a total hypocrite about it. People are complex, yes, even people who abandon their children. They can’t be summarized by using two overused cliches, and the impact they had on you can’t be brushed aside by simply reducing them to these overused cliches. Besides, do I have a to explain why I find it distasteful to see a woman bloom in domestic bliss when her mother is vilified and mocked for pursuing a career? No? Great!
The twins, Sean and Patrick, are the saving grace of Faerie Tale. Not only are they the more connected to the fairy court, they have the most interesting progression as characters. More Patrick than Sean but still. Patrick is a shy little boy that ends up finding the courage to save his brother. Sean learns that he can rely on his ‘weaker’ brother and shouldn’t lash out at him because they both have strengths and weaknesses. By teaming up, they save the world, kill the villain, and free their perverted double. And of course for all of that, they are graced by the capacity of remembering what happened.
All in all, the twins’ story is a well-crafted, interesting storyline. I just wish I didn’t have to suffer the rest while reading Faerie Tale.
As you have probably gathered by now, I didn’t really enjoy my read. But while thinking back on Faerie Tale, I came to the realization that I might be part of the problem. Raymond E. Feist is an incredibly popular author. The last time I went to a bookstore, one of his new works was heavily advertised (I mean, as much as a fantasy book can be in France). I don’t doubt that he has great qualities as an author.
A quality he can’t have though is creating a book that pleases the taste of a public that will be born 8 years after its original publication and will only read it 30 years later. Nothing is ever perfect, and age is never tender. Trust me on this, even fine wine that isn’t properly preserved ages poorly. This doesn’t absolve Faerie Tale of its mistakes. But I must be honest.
When it was first published in 1988, Faerie Tale might have been an above average book. It might have introduced a new concept: a sort of gothic horror based on fairy tales taking place in our time and adding an ‘international context’ to it. But everything I saw Faerie Tale trying to do, I have seen done better in other books since then. Time has been cruel to Faerie Tale, and, unfortunately, I paid good money to discover that.
Image Courtesy of Doubleday
Kel Commands in Squire, Pierce Prepares
Kel commands, and Pierce readies her for the trials of the next book, and for the rest of her life. Published in 2001, it deals with a lot of complicated, intersectional issues, in a mostly contemporary way. It’s one of the Pierce’s most progressive books. Squire covers the next four years of Kel’s training as a squire, and her Ordeal. The Ordeal looms over Kel as the prospect of knighthood draws ever closer, along with the challenges post knighthood.
Spoilers for Squire and all of Pierce’s previous books. Content Warning for mentions of sexual assault.
The First Two Years
Squire begins three months after Page ends. Kel visits the Chamber of Ordeal, and has a vision of never being picked as a squire. Almost immediately afterwards, Raoul approaches and asks her to be his squire. Kel accepts, and Raoul sets her up to ride with the Kings Own, the segment of the army he leads. A town summons the Own after an attack by bandits. In the hunt for the bandits, Kel kills one of the centaur bandits and rescues a baby griffin. Because of griffin magic, she needs to care for it until Daine explains to the parents that Kel didn’t steal him.
Caring for the griffin, tilting, or ‘flying’ lessons with Raoul, riding with the Own, and command lessons fill the rest of that year. Kel’s crush on Neal vanishes in the year they spend apart. Later, the Yamani delegation arrives, with Princess Shinkokami. Or, as Kel knows her, Shinko, a friend from her childhood in the Yamani Islands.
That fall, they discover the identity of the man who orchestrated Lalasa’s kidnapping is Joren. The magistrate deems him guilty, but because Lalasa is a commoner, the only payment is a fine. Kel’s outrage leverages Jonathan and Thayet begin changing that law. When Shinko and Roald meet, it’s very awkward, and they don’t know how to talk to one another. Kel engineers a gathering to loosen them up and get them to actually talk. Cleon kisses her afterwards, and Kel doesn’t know how to react. During Vinsen’s Ordeal of Knighthood, the Chamber forces him to feel the beatings he gave two women. Afterwards he confesses publicly to their beatings, and to the rape of another woman. When Joren takes his Ordeal, he dies.
The Last Two Years
All through these years, Kel approaches the Chamber, and receives visions when she touches the door. They’re always horrible, but eventually she grows somewhat immune. In the spring, the court leaves on Grand Progress, to introduce Shinkokami to the realm as their future princess. A knight insults one of Kel’s companions in the Own, and she challenges him. She wins, and another conservative immediately challenges her. Eventually, Kel tilts against Wyldon and loses. But she commands respect on the tilting ground, winning seventy percent of the time.
Raoul chafes against the trappings of the progress all year, and takes every opportunity to avoid the fuss. Kel and Cleon eventually come to an understanding and begin dating. Kel has a frank conversation with her mother and gets a contraceptive charm, though nothing comes of it. Daine finds the griffin’s parents and Kel returns him.
In Kel’s fourth year, Raoul and the King’s Own go north, to where war broke out between Scanra and Tortall. Kel spends the summer there, and commands a squadron in a fight with a metal machine. At the end of the summer, she and Raoul head to Corus for her Ordeal. Kel passes her Ordeal, but before it ends, the Chamber shows her who made the metal machine. She sees him with other machines and with a pile of dead children. The Chamber commands her to fix it.
After the Ordeal she meets Alanna. Alanna reveals she was the one who sent Kel all the mysterious presents. Alanna and Kel have a heart to heart, and the book ends with Alanna giving her a final gift. A sword that Kel names Griffin, and mentally prepares for the trials of the future.
Yes, yes it’s a cliched term, but it’s true. Over the four years of being a squire, Kel commands respect from a lot of people. Part of it is being so in the public eye as a member of the Own, as Neal pointed out. Part of it is also her successes in tilting during the Great Progress. But the fact remains, Kel earns respect through her actions in this book.
From Former Enemies
The first place that this really shows up is after her tilt with Lord Wyldon. She looses, and he knocks her out of the saddle. He rides over to her afterwards, gives her a hand up, advice, and asks if Joren caused any trouble recently. It’s a completely cordial conversation. Pierce reinforces that cordiality later, after the Midwinter where Vinsen and Joren fail their Ordeals. Wyldon retires afterwards, and Kel goes to confront him and argue against his retirement.
After an exchange about Joren, Vinsen, and how he almost derailed her page training, Kel still reaches out. “You’re the kind of knight I want to be.’ He regarded her with the strangest expression in his eyes. ‘I am not,’ he said. ‘But that you believe it is the greatest compliment I will ever receive.” (285). Kel’s compliment and everything Wyldon saw of her over six years of training changed them both. Kel always respected him, she didn’t like him because he never treated her fairly, but she respected him. That respect and her excellence managed now commands his respect for everything she’s done. That ‘strange expression’ is the face of someone given a compliment from someone he once reviled and now respects.
Another unnamed conservative knight also apologizes to her after a tilt. He says he misjudged her, and that he was wrong. It’s only one other person, but it’s a sign of some slow change for the better.
From New Allies
The respect Kel now commands shows up in women as well. After her second tilt with Wyldon, where she looses but isn’t unhorsed, she wakes in a tent. There are three pre-teen girls waiting there for her, and they want to be pages. She gives them all the advice she can. When she thinks the Ordeal will kill her, she thinks of them. Kel thinks her dying in the Ordeal will stop their dreams of being knights. But she doesn’t die, she passes the Ordeal, and now there’s the chance that others can come after her.
This also shows up in Alanna and Kel’s conversation after Kel earns her shield. Alanna reveals she gave Kel all the gifts she could from a distance. Then she proceeds to shower Kel in compliments.
“And you went so far beyond what I hoped, for the next girl page, and squire, and knight. All those tournaments, and those girls in the stands, right down by the field, watching you hungrily— … I had the magic, don’t you see, … But you, bless you, you are real. … They swore they’d take up archery, or riding, or Shang combat, because you had shown them it was all right. I was so proud.” (388).
It’s quite possibly my favorite scene in the whole series. Alanna and Kel speaking as equals, and Alanna’s recognition for all Kel did for Tortall. It’s beautiful, and transcendent, and shows what representation means for the disempowered. Kel’s success earned her respect, both from those who opposed her, and those who wanted to emulate her.
Kel commands leadership positions through her personality. Raoul explains it to her, that first winter. He lists the four different types of warrior. Heroes, knights, soldiers, and commanders.
“Commanders have an eye not just for what they do, but for what those around them do. Commanders size up people’s strengths and weaknesses. … Other warriors will obey a true commander … You’ve shown flashes of being a commander. … My job is to see if you will do more than flash, with the right training.” (120-121).
That paragraph summarizes the entirety of Kel’s character arc, and what differentiates her from Alanna. Alanna is the standard hero, but Kel is a commander. Kel learns from Raoul how to command a large troop of men. Before they head north, she helps him select candidates for training in the Own. He puts her in charge of the resupply before they go north. He teaches her tactics, strategy, how to inspire loyalty in her followers. And Kel learns quickly and well.
Kel’s lessons in command culminate during the summer they spend guarding the border. A band of Scanran raiders attached a merchant caravan, and Raoul, Kel, and several squadrons of the Own rode out. Raoul stations Kel with Dom’s squad, and a Scanran injures Dom. Raoul puts Kel in charge of the squad. She faces some resistance from one of the other men, but when the killing machine shows up, she’s able to lead them to victory.
A less extreme example is how she manages Roald and Shinko. Kel notices a problem, pulls together the right people to deal with it, and gets them working together. Yuki, Neal, and Cleon get them there, and Buri and Raoul start them talking. It’s not leading an army into battle, but the interpersonal things that make or break a relationship.
Intersectional Feminism in Squire
A lot of the focus in this book is the empowerment of women. To no one’s surprise, Squire has many feminist themes. It extends further than Alanna and Kel’s conversation about the impact Kel’s life has on others. Further than the three young girls who want to become pages themselves.
To no one’s surprise, it begins with Lalasa. In the dedication to Squire, Pierce acknowledges Gloria Barbizan and Dorothy Olding, “strong businesswomen long before women’s liberation.” Before Kel goes to with the Own, we see Lalasa, and Kel thinks of her, “They had both changed since their long, frightening walk down the side of Balor’s Needle six weeks ago. Kel thought that Businesswoman Lalasa was a treat.” (25). The description of Lalasa as a businesswoman and her new brisk nature shows the end of Lalasa’s timidity that so often irked Kel in Page.
Kel also develops many female friendships in this novel. She stays friends with Lalasa, but to her former maid she adds Buri, Shinko, Yuki, Thayet, and Alanna. Buri talks with her after Vinsen’s confession. Kel felt guilty about not reporting him after the attack on Lalasa. Buri tells Kel that, “Three nights a week your Lalasa closes her shop early, … She teaches city girls — commoners — holds, blows, and kicks that will help them to escape an attacker. She learned all that somewhere.” (273). That shows the ripple effect that Kel has, not just on noblewomen who can now be knights. But now common women have someone that can teach them to defend themselves. Kel taught Lalasa, and Lalasa now teaches others.
While not a major thread of Sqire, it’s something that’s important to address. This book has the most information about the Bazhir and their current status since Woman Who Rides Like a Man. It’s not as thorough as that novel is about Bazhir culture, but it’s more respectful because of that distance.
One of the first mentions of this is that the King’s Own has the best Bazhir representation of all the country, at one third. A Bazhir tribe adopted Raoul as one of their own, and that made things easier. Kel mentions spending time with the Bazhir several times, and spending time with Bazhir women after tilting practice. She also never comments on their face veils, or the removal thereof, which makes it better than Alanna’s reaction to their veils. Kel is also familiar enough with the Bazhir that she can identify different tribes on sight, also a positive sign.
It’s not perfect, but it brings back this thread that might be forgotten in a story less considerate of intersectional feminism. It’s almost two decades out of date, but it’s trying.
In the past two books, I’ve always debated whether or not to talk about Yamani culture. But now is the correct time, since we now have actual Yamani characters. I’ve also flip-flopped on my opinion on whether the Yamani influence is a good thing or not. It had something of exotification of Japanese culture in it, but re-reading this book solidified that for the good.
One of the things that made me feel better about the Yamani culture in this series was the acknowledgments section. She mentions Iris Mori as someone she spoke to about Yamani names and weapons. Presumably she talked about other things as well, and you can tell there’s research as well. Actually talking to the people that you’re attempting to represent in you book is the bar you have to cross, and Pierce crosses it here.
That being said, it’s not perfect, and the exotification is still there. Shinko’s former future mother in law is my only large complaint. Kel treats the potential abuse she could have done to Shinko as a joke. “Just think’ she said slyly, ‘no one here will expect you to be the slave of your mother-in-law.” (138). Kel jokes about the differences between Yamani and Tortallen culture in the hypothetical here. But Shinko reinforces this and makes it uncomfortable by talking about how she was betrothed before Roald, and her mother-in-law to be was horrible. It’s uncomfortable and the introduction keeps it couched as a joke.
Classism and Politics
At Joren’s trial, Kel discovers that the only punishment for kidnapping a maid is a fine to the mistress. Understandably, she’s extremely upset. Eventually she, Raoul, Thayet, and Jonathan are in a room together. Jonathan and Thayet talk about the difficult balancing of politics and what happens if they go too far. The conservatives will succeed, the mages attack, the priests preach against them, or the commoners will burn the city down. It’s the most honest about politics the entirety of Pierce’s work has been. Eventually Thayet says they can use Lalasa’s story to stir up emotion to generate a change. The two rulers swear to start the process of changing the law, if Kel doesn’t challenge Joren. Kel agrees.
Afterwards, Raoul and Kel talk over a quilt the griffin ruined. Raoul talks about why Jonathan and Thayet wanted to change the law. It ranges from it’s a bad law, to Jonathan wanted to get Kel on his side. Raoul says, “You should keep in mind that he probably wants you to be confused about him.’ Raoul shook his head. ‘He wasn’t this complicated when we were pages.” (173). People change, and politics changes people faster than time does.
But sometimes, even politics doesn’t stop people from doing what’s right. Kel needs two knights to instruct her before the Ordeal, Lord Raoul, and Duke Turamont. Also known as the Lord Magistrate, and the one who decreed she could take the big exams, and who tried Joren. He even sits with her during the vigil, because he doesn’t want anyone to interfere, even though he’s a conservative. He commands respect because he’s conservative because he doesn’t want anyone to say that she cheated, or for anyone to interfere. Kel thinks about the duty she owes to the realm and what those words mean during her vigil.
“Or was [the realm] other things: a little girl with a muddy doll, Burchard of Stone Mountain livid with grief and rage, a king who admitted a law was wrong, Lalasa in her bustling shop with pins in her mouth. … Duty was what was owed, good parts and bad, to keep the realm growing, to keep it as fair as life could be kept. Duty was an old man, snug in his fur-lined robe, snoring lightly somewhere behind her.” (377-8).
It’s one of the best descriptions of what a government is supposed to do that I have ever read. You shelter the people, even those that disagree with you because that’s the social contract. You fix the laws when they’re wrong, and you try to create better ones for the people that need them. Make the laws as ‘fair as life could be kept’ and you will have a good government.
Kel commands the story in Squire, and there is nothing that can take that from her. She finishes her training, and Pierce sets her up for the conclusion to the quartet. All of these elements resonate with the books that came before and the ones that will come after. Kel’s commands as well as she does because of her actions in Page and First Test. Wyldon grows to respect her because of her duty to Lalasa, and her excellence in his war games.
The years Kel spent in the Yamani court always influenced her. We can see through her pages, several of whom are either Bazhir, or mixed race, that the Bazhir are more accepted than before. All of these elements, the ways that Kel interacts with those around her, will be significant in Lady Knight. Pierce wrote a book in the early twenties that we can still see as largely progressive, and it’s because of Kel’s basic personality being lightyears ahead of her peers.