Lothlórien is an inverse of Moria. The latter was darkness and sharp stones, the promise of hidden threats and fire from the deep. Lórien is bright sun on golden leaves, waterfalls likened to gentle lace, the promise of protection bracketed by cool and healing waters. It would have been easy for Tolkien to leave the contrast at that. The Golden Wood could have provided the Company with a much-needed respite after a brutal three chapters culminating in Gandalf’s (apparent) death. But instead we get “Lothlórien,” an odd, layered chapter filled with beauty, sadness, and a persistent sense of strain.
Lothlórien and Time
The Lord of the Rings has been permeated with oldness. Oldness is associated with power, with magic, with a sense of majesty. There is the Old Forest, the old age of Bombadil, the ancient remnants of old cities and civilizations scattered around Eriador, Arnor, and Hollin. Lothlórien at first seems to be another iteration of that:
It seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world.
Lothlórien is old, a piece of the Elder Days remaining intact as time flies by and inflicts its damage on the rest of the world. It’s a refuge, a safe space, a shadowless land surrounded by shadows and wolves. But it’s also more than that:
Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.
Lothlórien isn’t just old, it’s literally timeless. Tolkien’s world is so overripe with nostalgia – it’s everywhere, permeating almost everything. It makes perfect sense that its magical epicenter is one in which nothing is lost to time.
“As they did so the South Wind blew upon Cerin Amroth and sighed among the branches. Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds whose race had perished from the earth.”
Everything is in Lothlórien. It’s a place where everything exists and nothing expires, a world impervious to loss.
Lothlórien and Sight
It’s also a place of clearer sight. When Frodo stands atop Cerin Amroth and looks around the woods around him, he twice – in a very short number of sentences – references the insufficiency of language. Instead he thinks of the sharpness of the world, how its oldness and immediacy make it seem like something entirely unique:
All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no color but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.
It’s a very Neoplatonic way of envisioning an idealized world (and Tolkien, as a Catholic, was probably well-versed in this sort of Neoplatonism that was originally popularized by early Christian writers like St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite). It calls to mind the philosophy that the individual objects of the world are simply reflections of ideal forms. And Frodo seems to catch a glimpse of these forms in Lórien. It’s telling that when he touches a mallorn tree, he’s struck by the fact that he does not view it through the lens of a gardener or a forester or a carpenter. He simply views it as a tree.
Lothlórien universalizes the world – it takes the specific and the unique iterations of something and overlays them, so a tree becomes Tree, green becomes Green. By picking up this approach Tolkien was able to create a landscape that is both intensely tangible and strangely ethereal.
Lothlórien and Strain
Of course, none of this is quite true.
Take a look at the last two pages of “Lothlórien” and it’s easy to come away with the idea that Cerin Amroth and Caras Galadhan are a verdant, shimming paradise, far removed from all strife. But if this were ever true, there are signs throughout the chapter that this view is increasingly filled with cracks. There is evidence of strife everywhere in Lothlórien, to the extent that the woods are ringed by armed scouts and all of the bridges into the land have been destroyed. Orcs are skirting the borders and making inroads into the forest. Climb a tree and look to the east, and within sight is the dark smear of Southern Mirkwood and the tower of Dol Guldur.
The attitude of the Elves of Lothlórien is not much more promising. Haldir is presented as an outlier for showing any interest in venturing in the outside world or learning much about it. They have a distrust of outsiders – especially dwarves – that is so intense that they insist blindfolding poor Gimli despite the fact that he’s traveling with another elf and the man who is engaged to Galadriel’s granddaughter. Despite the fact that Lothlórien feels more ‘magical’ than Rivendell, there is the sense that it comes at a cost. Everyone who lives within its borders seems to be constantly striving to maintain it, and to know that their task will ultimately fail.
The Value of Nostalgia
Also: for a timeless land where everything lost seems to still exist, Lothlórien has a real thing for nostalgia and the persistent awareness of sorrow. Take Haldir, speaking to the Company as they are walking through the Woods:
“Some there are among us who sing that the Shadow will draw back, and peace shall come again. Yet I do not believe that the world will ever again be as it was of old, or the light of the sun as it was aforetime. For the Elves, I fear, it will prove at best a truce, in which they may pass to the Sea unhindered and leave Middle-earth forever. Alas for Lothlórien that I love! It would be a poor life in the land where no mallorn grew. But if there are mallorn-trees beyond the great Sea, none have reported it.”
Haldir’s attitude here is so interesting to me. There’s the sense – always, with the Elves – of fading away, of their time coming to an end. That the world will never again be as beautiful as it used to be. It explains some of their flippancy – they’re dicks again in this chapter, scaring the Company on purpose then laughing at them. It’s a silly comparison but they’re a little like Middle-earth hipsters, laughing at these men and hobbits who are jumping onto the bandwagon so late in the game, never knowing what it was like at the start.
But at the same time Haldir expresses such a genuine love of his home. Even when contemplating sailing across the Sea – where presumably some of that “light of the sun as it was aforetime” may be present – he doesn’t seem excited. What’s the point without mallorn trees?
I’m also very intrigued by how valuable this sense of nostalgia is, or how Tolkien conceived of it when he wrote it. Most of the stories that come from the golden age to which the present elves look back were really terrible. Take the tale of Nimrodel and Amroth that Legolas sings of at the start of the story. He himself admits that it is “long and sad, for it tells how sorrow came upon Lothlórien.” In brief, it’s a story about how Nimrodel insisted to her lover Amroth that they flee from the dangers encroaching upon Lothlórien. On their way to the sea the lovers get separated. Nimrodel was never heard from again; Amroth cast himself into the sea.
It’s a sad story, and features a Lórien not noticeably different than the one in The Fellowship of the Ring. Most of the stories of the elder days of Middle-earth and Arda are deeply sad. The Silmarillion is not a happy book. I’m curious, then, as to what that says about the Elves’ views of the past and their attitude towards the changing nature of Middle-earth. They seem wistful of the past, unconcerned and incurious about the future. I’m unsure at this point how Tolkien would have felt about this.
Speaking of Middle-earth’s future: this is a good chapter for Aragorn. He steps up to the plate as the company’s new leader in Gandalf’s absence, managing to convince a grumpy Boromir and a proud Gimli to make their way further and further inside of Lothlórien. Though it’s not explicit here, he is such a nice counter to the Elves. Aragorn’s ties to the past make him a prime candidate for nostalgia about the glory days. But Aragorn seems to have very little interest in such thoughts. While he undeniably appreciates the beauty of Lórien it’s accompanied by a care and interest for Middle-earth’s future as well.
He also gets to be the star of the chapter’s rather beautiful closing lines:
“Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,” he said, “and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!” And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never against as living man.
The long flowing sentences provide a sharp contrast to the brusque, short sentences that closed out “The Ring Goes South,” “A Journey in the Dark,” and “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm.” Even better is the sudden intrusion of omniscient narration in the last line. Tolkien almost never uses this in The Lord of the Rings and so it stands out rather jarringly. It’s a nice way to suddenly destabilize the reader’s sense of time at the close of a chapter about a place that is timeless.
- In a lot of ways – especially in the early conversation between Boromir and Aragorn about the Wood’s peril – Lothlórien is akin to Faerie. Both are perceived as beautiful and dangerous, pockets of the world where time and space seem to shift. I wonder if the contradictions inherent in Lórien come from the fact that Tolkein was pulling from both his own Catholic background as well as a pagan / Celtic concept of fairy stories.
- I like the way that the Mirrormere from the chapter’s opening pages foreshadows Lórien. Both involved idealized pictures of the past, both involved idealized views of nature. It also sets up a nice tension where – in a chapter where elves and dwarves are constantly snipping at each other – the two peoples appear to have quite a bit in common.
- I do genuinely like many things about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Fellowship but Lothlórien feels off to me. The movie is all darkness and deep, blurry blues. Tolkien’s description is bright yellows, greys and golds. Perhaps it would have been difficult to convey the proper tone on film, but I do miss it the book’s color palette.
- Legolas and Gimli both have a good chapter for their characters. It’s fitting for Gimli’s character that he would be so outraged at a bunch of elves refusing to admit the legitimacy of his word:
“I will go forward free,” he said, “or I will go back and seek my own land, where I am known to be true of word, though I perish alone in the wilderness.”
“You cannot go back,” Haldir said sternly. “Now you have come thus far, you must be brought before the Lord and Lady. They shall judge you, to hold you or give you leave, as they will. You cannot cross the rivers again, and behind you there are now secret sentinels that you cannot pass. You would be slain before you saw them.”
Gimli drew his axe from his belt.
(Of course Gimli drew the axe from his belt).
- “Alas for the folly of these days!” said Legolas. “Here all are enemies of the one Enemy, and yet I must walk blind, while the sun is merry in the woodland under leaves of gold.” I love this line from Legolas. It starts off seeming so noble and open-minded, but then you realize he’s pretty much saying “It’s such a bummer that this war means I can’t look at the trees.” Elf princes are so entitled these days.
- Samwise! Sam is fucking relentless. He follows Frodo to both the Mirrormere and up a tree in Lothlórien even though no one invites him. I love him for it. And I was happy when he finally got an explicit invite up Cerin Amroth with Haldir.
- Prose Prize: Lots of pretty descriptions of trees here. Take your pick. I do quite like this passage though: “As they did so the South Wind blew upon Cerin Amroth and sighed among the branches. Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds whose race had perished from the earth.”
Courtly Rhetoric in ASOIAF and The Courtly Lady
Full disclosure: I’m a nerd. Specifically, in this case, a nerd for medieval literature, and a massive nerd when it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). When I get the chance to talk about the two together, many many opinions happen.
With that in mind, let’s talk about courtly rhetoric: the word “courtly” takes on an ideological character, particularly when the focus is on “courtly” virtues and “courtly love” as the central quality of a social ideal. This rhetoric is the thread that runs through texts surrounding courts in medieval Western European literature (particularly in Old French Romances, such as Arthuriana and related texts), and the conventions expressed in these texts, that have so shaped our understanding of love and the self, bleed into the rhetoric embedded in Westerosi culture (which, after all, takes much of its inspiration from pre-modern Western Europe).
For this exercise, we will be taking Sansa, Lyanna, Elia, Cersei, and Brienne as our examples, which will inform our foray into this field. (This will focus on Westeros: partly because it is more explicitly based on Western Europe, therefore neater comparisons can be made; partly because the series focuses on Westeros, so there are more developed characters to analyse rather than cultural monoliths).
But first, a spot of mythbusting: many feminist scholars have claimed that the relationship in fin’amor (“fine” or “high” love, the basis for what we now call “courtly love”) reflects an imbalance of power that is in the lady’s favour, as she dominates the knight and expects absolute submission. However, this ignores part of the purpose of this trope: that is, that this mistress-servant relationship is constructed in order to civilise knights (who, as Sandor Clegane would tell us, would otherwise go around murdering and — probably — raping civilians). Courtly romance was a civilising force for these highly-armed and very bored knights; but it was also a means to civilise female sexuality.
Simon Gaunt, the London-based Professor, tells us that “Female characters in romance are not real women, but figures within a male discourse” (p.71-2), and this nuance when considering the status of women in courtly texts is an important one. For example, the women in these romances very rarely, for one reason or another, choose their lovers: they are chosen by their lovers based on their sexual attractiveness or other parts of their exemplary femininity, whether they want this contact or not. Women are not allowed to choose whether or how they are pursued and, if they do not accept this “profession of love”, they are branded murderers (because of the contemporary view of the physiological effects of unrequited love—the pining lover would wither as if poisoned until he either died or had a token of his lady’s affection bestowed upon him).
An important example of this is in Le Châtelain de Coucy et la Dame de Fayel, in which the Lady of Fayel, although she recognises the exemplary chivalry and courtliness of the Castellan of Coucy, refuses his love because, well, adultery is wrong according to every social and religious norm she holds dear. Here’s the Castellan’s response:
“Se muir, vostre ame empeecie / En sera, ce ne poet falir, / Quant pour vous m’estera morir” (‘If I die, the blame will certainly rest heavily on your soul, since you will be responsible for my death’ ll. 526–528, translation mine)
This is emotional blackmail of the highest order, and although the Castellan seems to suggest that she has all of the power, we modern readers can see that that is blatantly not the case. No matter how many times the Lady of Fayel refuses, the Castellan implores her still more urgently, until she eventually assents.
So, in the first of three analyses, we will step away from the idea that chivalry, that placing women on a pedestal rather than allowing them to have flaws, is a positive thing. And that is something that GRRM is able to do (mostly) successfully, by showing its toxic influence on the interpersonal relationships at work in ASOIAF (and, because feudal politics relies so heavily on the personal, we can see that chivalric values affect every aspect of life).
Charmed and gracious: Sansa
Sansa Stark is our first clear example of someone who, at the start of the series, fully buys into the idea of the perfect chivalrous knight and the perfect courtly lady — her head is full of stories of knights, both fictional (in the case of Florian) and real (in the case of Barristan the Bold), and this completely shapes her entire worldview. She believes in perfect weddings and handsome, loving husbands and a small army of children, which influences the choices she makes and the consequences for those choices. In the world Sansa believes in (in the world that Westerosi society and her own insular court tells her is true), there is only just violence, perpetrated by noble knights in the quest of honouring the Seven Gods and protecting the vulnerable.
The scales are ripped cruelly away from Sansa’s eyes after her father’s execution and after she sees that not everyone who is handsome is a good man, that Queens are not always virtuous and kind-hearted, and that there are not always happy endings. This is important—since it forces both Sansa and the reader to look beneath the surface and consider the substance behind rhetoric which apparently stresses a quest towards moral perfection but which, in reality, rewards those who appear to conform.
Sansa has, as far as courtly rhetoric goes, been dealt a killer hand from the outset: a young maiden from one of the most noble lineages in Westeros and described as stunningly beautiful; the only thing Sansa lacks, from a medieval Western European perspective, is blonde hair (since red-haired women were at best morally dubious and at worst witches and demonesses). Let’s look at a description of Sansa from the perspective of her now-husband, Tyrion Lannister:
“Her hair was a rich autumn auburn, her eyes a deep Tully blue. Grief had given her a haunted, vulnerable look; if anything, it had only made her more beautiful. (ASOS Tyrion VIII, emphasis mine)”
The fetishisation of grief and the perversity of Tyrion taking a degree of pleasure in Sansa’s pain is one thing; but, for now, we’ll focus on other aspects of the quote. Sansa’s hair, while not immediately conforming to typical Western European beauty norms, is described in terms which would grace any courtly text: the richness of colour, the link to the idea of status (in a more obsessively realistic text, someone with red hair would be more unusual still, but I digress). Blue eyes are traditionally, in Western Europe, a sign of innocence and desirability, yes, but it is that they are Tully blue that is part of the attraction in this quotation, otherwise it would not have been mentioned. ASOIAF is a series that goes some way to deconstructing fantasy tropes (and Martin has done wonderful work in chapters that don’t obviously revolve around the court, such as the broken man speech); but the focus on the nobility of Westeros, however far away from home they are, is something telling about how much ASOIAF owes to the old courtly traditions.
We can see some of this focus on nobility in Sansa’s later chapters, as Alayne: Alayne is beautiful enough, most will agree on that, but she is accessible, and in a society which fetishises the idea of what Old French terms the domna, the lady and mistress; being accessible is seen as tarnished. Knights were supposed to desire the highest-born lady they could find (as we can see in Barristan’s recollections of the Tourney at Harrenhal, the convention was to name the highest-ranking woman the Queen of Love and Beauty, unless you wanted to make a statement); then they would pledge themselves to her service, where they would pine and wish for her to become less distant and ethereal. Alayne’s encounter with Marillion, who isn’t aware of Sansa’s birth status, is indicative of this: you are worth more if you are a noblewoman, and you will be treated as a prize to be won.
Wild, willful and dead before her time: Lyanna
Full disclosure: we won’t be talking about Rhaegar. The idea that Lyanna is only interesting insofar as she relates to Rhaegar or Jon is reductive, since there is so, so, much else to talk about.
In contrast to Sansa, not everyone concurs that Lyanna was a great beauty: while Robert remembers her as “the maid he loved and lost” (ACOK Davos III), and Ned remembers her as a “child-woman of surpassing loveliness”; Maester Yandel tells us that she was “a wild and boyish young thing”, and Kevan Lannister confirms that, although she had a certain “wild beauty”, she could not have hoped to compete with Cersei. Lyanna’s lack of conformity to an ideal, beautiful, courtly lady can be, in part, attributed to her “Northernness”: Sansa and Arya certainly seem to have had more freedoms, whether wisely or not, than Margaery. She is also noted to have had the traditional “Northern” look, with straight, brown hair and grey eyes; which do not set Westerosi hearts to racing, as opposed to the ethereal Targaryens, the striking Lannisters or the Tyrells and Tullys with their curls and high cheekbones.
However, of the Dead Ladies Club (championed so effectively by Tumblr user joannalannister), she is the nearest thing we have to someone approaching a person, if only barely, rather than a concept or a half-remembered ideal. Ned talks about her “steel”, and Bran sees her duelling Benjen in the Godswood; and her relationship with Rhaegar breaks a number of societal norms. The positions are, to a certain extent, reversed: Rhaegar is the higher-ranking party (the Crown Prince of Westeros), desiring a young, relatively powerless maiden. A far cry from the ideal of the domna and the supplicant, then. And we can see that Lyanna causes, to a certain extent, warps in conventional society wherever she is mentioned in the narrative, and even after her death, with her much-noted similarities to Arya.
Indeed, we could argue that a lot of Lyanna’s reputation for overwhelming beauty is an attempt to:
- Rationalise the historical impact she has had on Westeros
- Justify Rhaegar and Robert’s personal actions
- Normalise her, making her less threatening to traditional gender roles
With regard to the last point: this is something that has happened historically with powerful women; we need look no further than Cleopatra (this series of posts on Tumblr really highlights the need for martial cultures, such as cultures based around the court of a King, to weaponise femininity and to therefore contain women who try to break the mould). If Lyanna is beautiful, she is not dangerous. If she is beautiful, she can be contained.
A Good and Gracious Lady: Elia
Elia is an interesting case for so many different reasons, the first among them being that courtly rhetoric rarely focuses on wives: most courtly texts end once the hero has either definitively won the love and hand of his domna (such as in Le Chevalier au Lion, the story of Yvain and Laudine, who is not even named in some versions of the manuscript) or died tragically in the attempt (e.g. as we saw earlier with Le Châtelain de Coucy et la Dame de Fayel…but let’s be honest, we all hate that guy anyway). In Western Europe at the time, the norm among the aristocracy would have been arranged marriages, as appears to have been the case with Rhaegar and Elia.
Defenders of Rhaegar will cry foul and say that he could not possibly have been asked to stay faithful because it was an arranged marriage and he “wasn’t in love”. In that case, it was also arranged for Elia, and she had to move from her home into a land with dangerous, powerful, highly racist strangers (Aerys refused to hold Rhaenys because she “smelled Dornish” – that cannot have been the worst thing he said or threatened to do)
Returning to the point, the German medievalist Joachim Bumke tells us in Courtly Culture that “For Christians, a woman was an object of veneration only in the state of untouched virginity, graced with the ornaments of chastity and purity” (p.327), and it is clearly the case that relatively few courtly texts actually spend time on married life, and that is in part due to the idolisation of the virginal, young maiden. Lyanna and Ashara Dayne are idolised as young, desirable women who will always remain thus; it is much more difficult to romanticise Elia, for various reasons:
- She was abandoned by Rhaegar (Daenerys, even though she acknowledges his actions at the Tourney were cruel, asks Barristan specifically, “Did the Dornish woman treat him so ill?” and then claims that “If Rhaegar had been happy in his wife, he would not have needed the Stark girl.” (ASOS Daenerys IV) Elia, despite having done nothing wrong and being the one who was abandoned by her more powerful husband, is seen as being partially to blame for his actions)
- She is a woman of colour; this, and the perception that many of the non-Dornish characters have of the region before the reader even sees Dorne, means that she is less sympathetic…particularly, unfortunately, for a presumed white, Western audience
- She had had children, and was more defined by motherhood than Lyanna is in common knowledge in Westeros: mothers are largely silent, in the rare cases where they appear in texts at all, and one of their functions appears to be to represent idealised femininity at the court of their husband
- She was partially defined by her disability: the disabled are at best marginalised and at worst accused of moral degeneracy (having Elia be less than physically perfect in the first place challenges a number of notions that even modern readers have about the spouses of the powerful)
Elia is a useful reminder that, while there are cases of women such as Cersei, Catelyn and Sansa who conform to courtly norms and can even thrive in their environments, as Catelyn can; those that cannot conform are erased and/or punished. If women are ever portrayed to be anything less than physically perfect, for example, the best they can hope for in courtly narratives is to die
Instead, Elia has become, in Dorne, a symbol of what was robbed from and denied Dorne after Robert’s Rebellion, rather than a person in her own right. Even her brothers, who loved her beyond measure, see her as a cause, as a wrong to be righted, rather than as a person. Was she kind? Barristan tells us she was, but a) Barristan is unreliable and b) we are shown any memories from the character herself, as we are in the case of Lyanna.
(Incidentally, I think Jaime’s fever dream, where he saw Rhaegar et al. accusing him, was a wasted opportunity – yes, Rhaegar was a paramount knight, which has implications for Jaime’s own wasted ambitions, but as the main Kingsguard knight in King’s Landing, he would have been much more involved with the city-dwelling royal family…that is to say, Elia and her children. The importance of the dynamic of protectors and charges cannot be overlooked in cultures with valorise the martial male and the docile female, and Elia’s accusation would have not only made her a presence in the narrative, not just a name; it would have also given the audience to see her and experience her as a person, which again is a powerful statement).
Now is a useful moment to point out that courtly rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. This (and the fact that interiority is only just, in medieval Western Europe, starting to become a Thing™) means that, while rhetoric surrounding courtly literature is useful to understand some of our modern conceptions of love, society and beauty norms, it cannot be applied cookie cutter-style. That said, it is partly Elia’s failure (through no fault of her own) to conform to certain standards imposed on her by Westerosi society (she is not young, nor a maiden, nor white, nor in perfect health) that means that she is treated so harshly (that and the fact that her mother had the audacity to “steal” Rhaegar from Tywin and Cersei, so Tywin felt she must pay).
Light of the West: Cersei
Aside from her casual cruelty, one of Cersei’s most famous traits is her beauty (although that has begun to fade as she sinks deeper into alcoholism, gains weight and ages generally—during the Walk of Shame, people insult her about her fading beauty, something that is deeply traumatic for her).
This beauty would have been just as enticing for a Western European audience, as Jon tells us: “She was as beautiful as men said. A jeweled tiara gleamed amidst her long golden hair, its emeralds a perfect match for the green of her eyes” (AGOT Jon I). The effect of language and conventions expressed most prominently in literary texts is clear here: “She was as beautiful as men said” is a clear indication of the power of language in the creation of desire, and in some courtly texts, the male lover desires his love object purely on the strength of words alone:
“Amors l’a cuit d’une estencele / de cel biau non mout pres del cuer” (“at the sound of this beautiful name [Liénor], love seized the emperor’s heart” Le Roman de la Rose, ou de Guillaume de Dole, ll. 793-794, translation mine)
For our purposes, what is most interesting about Cersei is what she is not: both within the bounds of the narrative and without. Within the story, Cersei falls short of every model of ideal Westerosi feminine-coded behaviour, except for her outward presentation. One thing that Cersei’s mere existence in the narrative challenges is the Beauty Equals Goodness trope, something that is a staple of courtly literature: the domna in the text is, in the vast, vast majority of cases, not only beautiful but also the epitome of feminine, Christian (even if she herself is not of this faith) values; even when the woman’s beauty is fantasised about, her core virtues are also highly praised. Cersei herself makes a conscious effort to live up to these outward expectations:
“Cersei smiled to see her, and Sansa thought it was the sweetest and saddest smile she had ever seen” (AGOT, Sansa IV)
“Cersei graciously granted their request” (ACOK, Sansa VI)
However, in the privacy of her own thoughts, we see another side to this apparently perfect lady:
“Who is the most fearful, the most wanton, the hungriest for favour? Who has the loosest tongue? She would need to make a point of finding out” (AFFC, Cersei II)
“If Margaery Tyrell thinks to cheat me of my hour in the sun, she had bloody well think again” (AFFC, Cersei V)
While I may personally detest Littlefinger (no, I will not call him Petyr, he’s a disgusting little man and I don’t understand why this fandom licks his boots), he makes an interesting point about Cersei: “Her strength rests on her beauty, birth, and riches. Only the first of those is truly her own, and it will soon desert her. I pity her then.” (ASOS, Sansa VI).
Beauty is a source of power in both ASOIAF and the courtly literature the series borrows so liberally from, and in ASOIAF, it is a shield from behind which Cersei can enact her own plans: “Beauty can be treacherous. My brother learned that lesson from Cersei Lannister” (ASOS, Jon XI) And in courtly literature itself, beauty is designated as an inciting force, which can inspire men to glory or to shame: “Kriemhilt geheizen; si wart ein schöne wîp / dar umbe muosen degene vil verliesen den lîp” (Nibelungenlied 1.3-4, “Her name was Kriemhild, and she became a beautiful woman; because of her, many knights would lose their lives”, translation mine).
In courtly rhetoric, however odd it may seem to our ideas of outdated gender expectations: the importance of children to a courtly lady is not overstated. When she is a mother, of course, she must endeavour to raise her child in the appropriate faith and give exceptional moral guidance, but in terms of the aim of courtly literature and rhetoric, it is secondary, and usually happens after the romance has ended.
Given Cersei’s narcissistic qualities, it is not surprising that Cersei certainly views her two eldest children as extensions of herself: the example of Myrcella is pertinent here, as she is said to have begun showing signs of Cersei’s great Lannister beauty, with “none of her nature” (AGOT, Tyrion I). Cersei thinks little of Myrcella in her own chapters: she expresses anger at the Dornish match (mostly because she sees it as a challenge to her own power, which is certainly not unheard of for medieval noble ladies, historically speaking); and she mourns Myrcella’s maiming as it coincides with the loss of some of her own idealised beauty (through weight gain and heavy alcohol consumption). So while some aspects of the courtly stereotype apply to the example of Cersei, others fall far short.
The Maid of Tarth: Brienne the Beauty
It is no secret that Brienne is basically the anti-Cersei, and another explicit challenge to the Beauty Equals Goodness trope. For context, an ugly noblewoman a) probably wouldn’t have made it into a manuscript (or if she had originally, she would have been edited out by later writers, since there wasn’t a sense of intellectual property or the “will” or “vision” of the author, as exists today) and b) if she had even existed in the narrative, she would have been a witch, no questions asked.
I think Gwendoline Christie, being the goddess that she is, has really warped people’s perceptions of Brienne: I’m not trying to be cruel when I say that Brienne is ugly, since that is the Point™, in the same way that it is the Point™ that Sandor Clegane is ugly. It provides a counterpoint to their moral goodness, and throws conventional views of the link between beauty and virtue out of the window, or at least tries to.
The challenging of societal expectations of women is a prominent theme in the whole of ASOIAF, but particularly in AFFC, where we have the introduction of the Dornish and Ironborn plots, introducing Arianne and Asha, who are fascinating in and of themselves: AFFC is a hugely important book for Brienne, as it lays the groundwork for many of the internal and external conflicts she will be forced to face. One such conflict is Randyll Tarly, who tells Brienne that “’Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you.’” (AFFC Brienne V). Strong, masculine words from someone who threatened to kill his son and heir.
Another thing that Brienne overtly challenges is the physical expectations of women in a courtly milieu, something she explicitly reflects on in her AFFC chapters, which merit a reread all by themselves. Bumke observes that stating that a woman had a “’man’s disposition’” was “the highest praise for a woman that poets and chroniclers could think of. Only in physical strength should a woman not equal a man. Otherwise she would become weird and dangerous, like strong Brunhilde in the Nibelungenlied, who struck the fear of God into the heros from Worms and was therefore cursed as the devil’s wench” (p.332).
Brienne, incidentally, describes herself frequently as “freakish” (AFFC Brienne I and VI), something Rorge hammers home in VII: “’Whore!’ he boomed. ‘Freak! Bitch!’”. This rejection by Rorge, nigh universally acknowledged to be one of the worst members of the Brave Companions and someone who the reader is not supposed to agree with on any matter, can show the reader that the opposite is, in fact, the truth: Brienne is beautiful, in that she represents the triumph, however futile it seems in the moment (here and here), of moral goodness, which is also an element of courtly rhetoric.
The act of striving towards moral perfection, usually in the service of a lady, is a key tenet of courtly discourse. The fact that Brienne performs these acts in service to Catelyn and, later, Brienne’s memory of her and her oath, is incredibly significant.
AFFC Brienne IV can be seen to highlight the nature of women as objects of exchange in male homosocial relationships (that is to say, social relationships between men):
“It was Septa Roelle who had lifted the scales from her eyes. “’They only say those things [about her beauty and grace when dancing] to win your lord father’s favour,’ the woman had said. ‘You’ll find truth in your looking glass, not on the tongues of men.’” (AFFC Brienne IV)
While this observation is cruel, Roelle makes an important point: the exchange of women is an important means of establishing kinship between two men, which is a cornerstone of Westerosi society, as can be seen through the emphasis on the Mother and Father at the heart of the Faith of the Seven and the taboo surrounding kinslaying.
However, Brienne the Maid’s rejection of a place in this view of society and social organisation can be poignantly highlighted when she thinks about her previous betrothal to Lord Caron’s younger son, and thinks about how, at this stage in her young life, she would probably be at Nightsong with a babe in arms: “It always made her feel a little sad, but a little relieved as well” (AFFC Brienne III).
This emphasis on feeling and interiority is so, so important when it comes to thinking about conventional courtly rhetoric: it is, after all, an expectation, and the feeling of relief that Brienne describes can be seen as a welcome liberation from shackles that, whether they benefit from them or not, medieval and Westerosi women have to face.
If You Only Read One Star Wars Novel, Make it Lost Stars
If you aren’t reading the New Extended Canon (EC) Star Wars novels, you’re really missing out. Ever since my friend Rachel got me hooked on the EC, I’ve made it a goal to get everyone I know hooked as well. The characters are excellent, the stories diverse and nuanced, and the themes and messages deep, thoughtful, and relevant. They aren’t fluff or filler; they’re necessary elements of the Star Wars franchise that expand upon and fill out what we only get to see briefly in the films (ask me about that later, I have a piece planned). Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars is the example par excellence of what EC Star Wars is all about.
Lost Stars was published in 2015, so I’m admittedly behind the game in getting this review out. However, because of how exemplary this novel is for the EC and how great a novel it is on its own merits, it’s worth talking about now. Especially given how, ah, divisive The Last Jedi has been for the fandom. Spanning the entirety of the Original Trilogy (OT) and then some, Lost Stars offers a unique perspective on the events of the OT: that of an Imperial officer and an Imperial defector to the Rebellion. Even if you hate the Sequel Trilogy with a passion, you really don’t want to miss Lost Stars.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
The reign of the Galactic Empire has reached the Outer Rim planet of Jelucan, where aristocratic Thane Kyrell and rural villager Ciena Ree bond over their love of flying. Enrolling at the Imperial Academy together to become fighter pilots for the glorious Empire is nothing less than a dream come true for the both of them. But Thane sours on the dream when he sees firsthand the horrific tactics the Empire uses to maintain its ironclad rule.
Bitter and disillusioned, Thane joins the fledgling Rebellion—putting Ciena in an unbearable position to choose between her loyalty to the Empire and her love for the man she’s known since childhood.
Now on opposite sides of the war, will these friends turned foes find a way to be together, or will duty tear them—and the galaxy—apart?
The Good Stuff
Full confession: I love Claudia Gray. Her novels exhibit a level of artistry in writing characters and themes that take me aback every time. Her prose manages to be both highly evocative and approachable to a broad range of reading levels. She’s a master of subtle yet plausible fanservice. Characters we love from the OT—like Luke, Han, Leia, and even side characters like Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar—enter our protagonists’ sphere in ways that make sense and never linger beyond what’s reasonable.
Her worldbuilding is likewise excellent. She writes the Star Wars universe as well as any other of the EC writers I’ve read, but what I love most is her attention to cultural details. Creating convincing alien species and cultures takes a lot of skill. Remembering to also provide cultural differentiation for human settlements takes an equal amount of skill, and not every writer remembers to do that. Gray makes cultural differences more than about dress, appearance, physiology, or large-scale religious differences. Small details like mourning rituals, formal declarations of loyalty, and a special practice for carrying on the memory of a dead twin add to the sense of realism of her characters and their cultural heritage.
As was true in Leia: Princess of Alderaan, her pacing is slower than most YA novels, but that doesn’t mean there’s no action. She writes action sequences well; the finale is damn near cinematic. At the same time, the vast majority of her tension occurs within the characters. Gray knows how to use third person intimate to its best effect. The juxtaposition of different viewpoints on the same event is especially effective for character development and maximum tragic irony.
Whether it’s divided loyalties, internal versus external honor, duty versus love, ideals versus reality, or cynicism versus faith, Gray knows how to write internal conflict superbly well. She’s especially good at writing characters whose sense of duty is at odds with their ideals or inhibits their emotional vulnerability. (Basically, she knows dutiful princesses inside and out.) She crafts interactions where misunderstanding makes tragic sense without feeling forced or needlessly complicated.
Her skill in this regard is on full display with Ciena and Thane in Lost Stars. They’re not just literally star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of a war (though they are that). Ciena and Thane are the kind of people who start out believing that they know everything about what the other thinks and feels. They can predict each other’s moves with uncanny precision one moment but still misunderstand the motives and goals of the other the next. Because no matter how much we know someone, they can still surprise us. It’s a delicate balance, and Gray handles it deftly.
Gray also excels at writing interesting secondary characters with only a paragraph or two. Lohgarra—a mom friend Wookiee Thane co-pilots for—is one of my favorite secondary characters and her page time might be somewhere around 10 pages. Ciena’s former roommate at the Imperial Academy Jude is a delight, and Nash Windrider, one of Thane’s former roommates, has one of the most fascinating character arcs in the whole book.
On the aesthetic side, the cynic/idealist is one of my favorite romantic pairings. Plus, Lost Stars is basically an entire novel of angst and mutual pining, which I am a huge fan of when done well (and this is done really well).
“They mirrored each other, almost touching but forever apart.” (p. 545)
That’s it. That’s the book.
It’s an honest love story, one with powerful connection and loyalty on the one hand but with the potential for devastating misunderstanding on the other. True, most people don’t know what it feels like to possibly be the person to shoot down your best friend/lover’s plan in battle, but we all know what it means to fear hurting someone we love because of a difference of opinion. The stakes are higher for Thane and Ciena, but that just makes the story that much more gripping.
Lost Stars shows us that there are as many reasons to be a part of the Empire as there are to be a part of the Rebellion. It isn’t all black and white. Not everyone who joined up with Leia and co. did so because they believed in the ideals of the New Republic. Not every Imperial joined up to coldly exploit the galaxy. Cynics can be Rebels; idealists can be Imperials. Not every Alderaanian approved of the Organas.
When watching the OT and PT, it can be easy to think that the tyranny and corruption at the heart of the Empire was always obvious to everyone. But it wasn’t, and Lost Stars tackles that thorny issue head on. We see that for many, the Empire felt like a necessary corrective to the chaos of the Clone Wars. It brought a sense of stability, of ‘law and order’ that at first appeared healthy and safe. Before the depth of Palpatine’s depravity became widely known, the Empire offered a measure of freedom, advancement, and a sense of purpose for those from back water planets, ‘low’ birth, or chaotic homes.
Staying within the Empire isn’t so clear cut either. Through Ciena’s eyes, we see a wide range of explanations for staying from true belief, to a cultural commitment to loyalty, a desire to fix what’s broken, and a sense of responsibility for those under her command. Some of these reasons are more sympathetic than others, but the larger truth behind them is that not everyone within the Empire is a hateful monster.
It can take a long time for the rot at the core of an apple to infect the outer flesh and in the meantime, a lot of well-meaning, good people can be tempted to bite into it, only to get sick. We might initially be tempted to think we’re a Thane, but most of us are more like Ciena than we’d care to admit. Ciena’s self-delusion and slowly unfolding sense of betrayal is mesmerizing in its honesty. The moment she meets Palpatine is heavy, terrifying, and raw because we sympathize with her. We, too, could have and have been that person who didn’t believe they were serving something truly horrible until it looks them in the face (especially if we’re someone who has any degree of privilege in our current society).
Lost Stars also highlights the many paths to doubt and disillusionment and that one’s reaction to those feelings isn’t always the same. Ciena didn’t see the atrocities Thane did first hand, but neither did Thane have to experience the personal betrayals Ciena did. And neither of them were native Alderaanians like Nash Windrider, an Imperial officer who witnessed the destruction of his planet from the ‘other side.’ With these three characters and others, we see that coping takes many forms, some healthier than others. Sometimes people double down on their original beliefs. Others seek a way out through defection and still others through self-harm and suicide. We also see just how much one’s culture and family history can shape one’s perspective on the same situation.
Gray tackles some of the most pressing questions that face us today when it comes to systemic oppression and injustice. Do all good people go bad in a corrupt system? What is the best pathway to change? When do we abandon a corrupt system and when do we try to change it from within? Is disloyalty to a corrupt system different from the disloyalty of that system to the people it’s meant to take care of? How? To what degree is responsibility for systemic injustice shared at every level and what ought to be reserved for those in positions of more power? Should we take motivations into account when condemning those who participated in a corrupt system?
The answers to these questions are complicated, and Gray never lets us simplify them.
At the same time, she never justifies her characters’ behavior or beliefs for the sake of “moral ambiguity.” It’s one of her other great skills: her ability to present her characters without judgment yet while still maintaining a moral center to the story. She’s willing to write them honestly and in a nuanced way without leather-pantsing. There’s no need to caricature the Empire, Imperials can be human and wrong at the same time. In fact, they’re more pitiable and tragic for their humanity. You can feel sorry for them and even empathize with them while still condemning the choices and desire for consequences. She never shies away from calling it like it is…
“I was so dedicated to honor that I became a war criminal.” (p.540)
…but that doesn’t make her characters any less real or honest. Gray generates sympathy and pathos without ever justifying the horrors committed in the Empire’s name. It’s truly remarkable and one of the most nuanced pieces of storytelling I’ve read in years.
Gray never shies away from depicting the human cost of war either. For all who have complained that the OT didn’t deal enough with the casualties of war and the losses inflicted and suffered on both sides, this is your book. We can get so focused on Alderaan (justifiably so) that we forget that the Death Star would have been a similarly traumatic event for the Imperial officers. They, too, lost friends, loved ones, and colleagues. The scale is different, of course, but the grief and trauma isn’t. We can acknowledge the trauma of both situations without equating their actions.
That’s the beating heart of Lost Stars, the story beneath the doomed romance of Thane and Ciena. We can acknowledge the pain, suffering, trauma, and even the differing motivations of those who ideologically disagree with us without justifying or excusing the horrific acts committed by them and the system they participate in. We can humanize without moral equivalence. I can see and validate your grief without that meaning I agree with you or what you’ve done. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, admittedly. And one that’s getting harder to do in our culture of extremes. But it’s a necessary nuance if we’re ever going to fix our fractured society. We have to humanize the other side because otherwise, we’re at risk of losing what we stand for.
Finally, I have to say that I appreciate that Gray includes neuroatypical and disabled characters. These types of diversity tend to get overlooked in the very necessary desire for queer and racial representation. She has that, too, yet she doesn’t forget the marginalizations others might. She brings it all to the characters she writes and so seamlessly that I want to point to her when I hear people complain about diversity being ‘unnatural.’
At 550 pages, this book is a commitment, I grant you. However, Gray’s style is so readable and the story so gripping that the time flies. I read it in two days while also doing my normal level of other work. Plus, it’s totally worth it.
Final Score: 10/10
Lost Stars is must read for SW fans of all ages, even ones who hate the Sequels, even ones who are more into the OT and Legends. It’s the best that EC has to offer, in my opinion, and what I’d recommend to people who want to read EC novels if they’re not looking for specific character driven novels like Leia, Ahsoka, Rose, or Luke.
Images courtesy of Disney Lucasfilm Press
Book Review: Villains Don’t Date Heroes! by Mia Archer
When a friend I’ve known for years suggested I read this book, I knew I was in for a treat of absolute weirdness. Her taste is a little odd, and when she recommended this based on the level of campiness, I knew I had to give it a shot.
Villains Don’t Date Heroes! (Yes, the exclamation is included in the title) focuses on Night Terror, the best supervillain in the city who is bored of her job. She has terrorized the town to the best of her ability, and we find her during a bank robbery that she is only conducting out of tedium. As she goes about robbing the bank, we are introduced to Fialux, the new superhero in town. Not only is she able to take down Night Terror, but she has her head over heels in love from first glance.
Night Terror knows she can’t get back to her general treachery with Fialux around, so she begins to plot ways to take her down. But when Night Terror has to come to terms with her past and how her expulsion from college is impacting her present, does she find something larger brewing? And how, in all of this, does a crush on Fialux fit in?
Now, I judge books differently by who they are written by and how they come to end up in my Kindle Library. Was this traditionally published, self-published, or published by small press? How does the piece I am reviewing fit into the author’s larger body of work? I do this because not every book gets the same amount of revision and eyes on it, so I do hold traditionally published books to a higher standard, and I give a little slack to independent publishers. When I started to dig a little deeper into what this author writes, I found almost the exact same story line. Over and over again, a geek falls for a cool girl. One of them is in the closet. A kiss changes everything. Will they risk it all for true love (or as true of love as you can be in at 17)?
Villains don’t date Heroes! is different. It’s Archer’s first foray into superheroine drama, and for that, I do give her credit for venturing beyond her typical story. But upon reading the synopsis more closely on Amazon, I found that this book had been previously written under a different pen name, and that pen name brought up a steamier variety of book. A peruse through some of the Amazon reviews also stated that maybe this was a third rewrite under a third pen name. Either way, this has been published in three different versions under three different pen names.
This book is decidedly campy, but not in an effective way. Even in the inanest of romance novels there is a thinly veiled plot over the pining and general frivolity. But in this, we are told Night Terror is bored. We are told Night Terror is attracted to Fialux. We are told how brilliant and capable Night Terror is, only to watch her fail over and over. We are told a lot of this story (what story there is amongst the gloating and rewriting).
But the writing isn’t the only problem. We only get any actual conversations between Fialux and Night Terror halfway through the book. Before that, it is Night Terror mooning over how attractive Fialux is, being thrown in jail, tinkering around, and brooding over how she was kicked out of college. There isn’t much here to be upset with, because there isn’t much story.
And there are major problems with the basic premise. If Night Terror is the greatest supervillain in the city, why is she bored? If she wants to take over the world, why is she just terrorizing this one city? Shouldn’t she be moving on to the larger state or country? Why does she spend so much of the novel harboring anger at her old college professor? As the story goes on, one realizes that very little of it makes any sense.
Look, I’m not here to tell you what to do, but this is the third time this mess has been published, and honestly, if you want an anti-hero story, or a villain story, or just a superhero story, go read anything in the Superheroine series by YLVA Publishing. I’ve reviewed a couple of the titles, and both are works of classic literature in comparison to this mess. Save yourself the time, energy and frustration, and go read something else.