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Pierce Brown is the Dan Brown of Space Operas in Red Rising Trilogy

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This review will not contain any major spoilers for the series, but will include discussion of characterization and overarching themes. 

Reading the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown was the first time I got what a space opera was supposed to feel like.

I’ve read my share of fantasy, but science fiction has always struck me as a little sterile. However, my New Year’s resolution was to read more of it, so this New York times bestseller and Campbell award nominated author seemed like a good pick. I was promised breathtaking adventure and this did not disappoint.

Red Rising Color Foundations

Thousands of years in the future, human society has spread across the solar system, with each planet ruled by its own governor, reporting to the Sovereign who rules from Luna, Earth’s moon. Thanks to genetic and surgical manipulation, society is segregated by color, a designation that is also represented by peoples’ hair, eyes, and metal “sigils,” which are embedded in their flesh. Each color has a singular purpose. Our story follows Darrow, a 16 year old Red ‘helldiver’ miner who goes undercover to train as one of the ruling Gold class to lead his people in a revolt — the titular Red Rising.

The world building throughout the trilogy is immense, and the unique vocabulary does a lot of that early work, immediately immersing us in Darrow’s dangerous, sweaty life as a Red slave. Words like “bloodydamn,” “helldiver,” and “prime” help to establish that this society has its own slang, and it’s easy to imagine how these phrases evolved from the English we speak today. Once Darrow is among the Golds, there is a distinct linguistic shift, and certain words and phrases are replaced by a veneer of class. “Bloodydamn” becomes “gorydamn” and Golds pompously refer to each other as “my goodman.” 

However, one of the major flaws in the world building is the complete failure of the narrative to acknowledge the irony of overthrowing a color-based system of slavery — in a galaxy where everyone is white. With the exception of the war-like Obsidians, every other mention of skin color in the book refers to characters pale skin, particularly in contrast to their color. This galactic white-washing is seemingly confirmed by the way the author describes his influences for the colors’ distinct accents: “Darrow has an Irish accent in my head. Golds speak with a very Scandinavian accent. The Obsidians have a hybrid Maori sound.” I refuse to write this off as a failure of imagination: any vision of humanity’s future that does not include actual people of color is inherently racist. 

Red Rising Colors ExplanationThe racial discomfort is further compounded by the fact that even within this narrative ostensibly about the uprising of an entire caste of people, startlingly few of the characters in the novel are actually from that caste. The ensemble of major characters are almost exclusively Gold, as are the leaders of the revolution. Instead of a story about the proletariat overthrowing the ruling class, this story is ultimately about the clash between rival factions who already have power.

The series does only marginally better when it comes to its female characters, who are trained as warriors right alongside the boys, and indeed, ruled by a female Sovereign. But of the three major female characters, none of them manage to transcend their tropes. The first, Darrow’s wife Eo, is killed in the first chapter, only to be tearfully idolized thus inspiring Darrow to embark on his rebellious mission. The second major female character, Victra, is a fierce and ruthless warrior who first falls in love with Darrow before eventually (off screen) getting together with his best friend instead. 

Finally, there’s Virginia, the third major female character and ultimate love interest who throughout the entire trilogy is referred to by the nickname Mustang. While other characters are also given nicknames during the Hunger Games-esque trials of the first novel, they go on to be known by their true names, while a quick text search of the e-book shows a mere 68 instances of “Virginia” throughout the entire trilogy, while “Mustang” is referred to 1,135 times, called that not only by Darrow, but her family and the Sovereign herself. Though Virginia is a proven fighter, her true strength is her mind, and she is one of the key diplomats and strategists of the series. 

It’s tempting to write Virginia off as a Mary Sue, but her deft competency is overshadowed by Darrow’s blinding perfection. Despite his origins, Darrow quickly masters the physical and mental skills needed to pass as a Gold, and goes on to become a leader, general, and hero. His only flaw is his literally unbelievable arrogance.

“These legions are mine. I feel something buzzing in those around me. A sort of physical fanaticism. It did not buzz in the Golds quite like this. The Golds love me because of the victory and glory I bring. These other Colors love me for something far different, something far more potent. Any other conquering Gold would have vented the ship, but I did not, because they chose me instead of the Golds who were once their masters. I gave them that choice.”  Golden Son

Over the course of the series, Darrow becomes something of a legend, an image he is very conscious of maintaining. At times, his obsession with his own image begins to feel bloated and self-congratulatory. While no doubt unintentional, altogether these flaws add to a narrative that is profoundly lacking in self-awareness.

“Most call me sir or Reaper. And I want to correct them and tell them to call me Darrow, but I know the value of respect, of distance between men and leader. Because even though I’m laughing with them, even though they’re helping heal what’s been twisted inside me, they are not my friends. They are not my family. Not yet. Not until we have that luxury. For now, they are my soldiers. And they need me as much as I need them. I’m their Reaper. … I’ve never been a man of joy or a man of war, or an island in a storm. … That was what I pretended to be. I am and always have been a man who is made complete by those around him. I feel a strength growing in myself. A strength I haven’t felt in so long. It’s not only that I’m loved. It’s that they believe in me.” Morning Star

While Darrow’s accomplishments are genuinely impressive, in order to pull off these flashy exploits Brown purposefully withholds Darrow’s plans from the reader. What plays out as a clever scheme the first time quickly becomes rote as the reader is left in the dark only to be surprised by a twist that comes out of nowhere. 

If you are wondering how the series got the author nominated for a Campbell award, we’ll return to: space opera. The major story of the series, a struggle for justice against an oppressive regime, is compelling and well-constructed. However unlikely its origins, this intergalactic oligarchy is is expansive and intricate, and Darrow introduces us to multiple minor characters and side-plots who add color (see what I did there!) and depth to this world. To this massive infrastructure, Brown layers in competing political interests, corruption, family drama, and betrayal. In this galaxy, alliances change seemingly at the drop of a ring, and government is a blood sport.

RED-RISING-quote-7The writing is rich and evocative, oftentimes taking on a cinematic quality when describing the glory and rush of a fight. I imagine those with a taste for battle tactics will enjoy the many clashes of the massive space armadas much more than I did, though even I can admit that they were epic and engaging. Life is cheap in this universe, and Brown doesn’t shy away from visceral descriptions of violence and emotional hardship.

It’s in the friendships between Darrow and his fellow warriors that the story really shines. As Darrow assimilates into Gold society, he struggles to reconcile the people he has come to care about with the inhumane regime they represent. Throughout the course of the trilogy Darrow’s relationships with the Golds he trained with shift, and shift again, exploring many different aspects of friendship and loyalty. These relationships and characters ground the adventure in very human emotion, and the story dwells on the tragedy of circumstances that pits love and honor against each other. 

Ultimately, Red Rising is a fun story whose execution is muddied by un-examined privilege.


Images courtesy of Random House. 

 

 

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Analysis

The Realms of the Gods Contrasts Systems of Morality

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Image Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Everything has lead up to this, Pierce’s final novel of the Immortals Quartet, Realms of the Gods. Published in 1996, this book concludes Daine’s story arc. In doing so, Pierce shows us different aspects of morality, largely through contrast. This is interesting in both the content of her story, and in the context of a changed world.

It’s that changed world context that has had me apprehensive of this piece. I’ve been thinking about it since I started writing this series of articles. We’re now twenty-two years past the initial publication date. Things that might have been more easily accepted then are now widely debated topics on the internet. I am, of course, referring to the relationship between Daine and Numair. The morality of that relationship is something that will be discussed at length below.

Spoiler warning for all the previous books in this series. Vague spoilers for future books regarding Daine and Numair’s relationship. 

What Happened?

The story begins at Midwinter, a few months after Emperor Mage, when the barrier between the divine realm and the human realm falls. The barrier that once kept the immortals from entering en mass. By Midsummer, Tortall is in the midst of a brutal war against immortals and mortals alike. Jonathan sends Daine and Numair after a new monster, called Skinners. After losing that battle, Daine’s parents pull them into the Divine Realm. We find that Sarra has become a goddess. In addition, Daine’s father is Weiryn, an antlered god of the hunt. After a time spent with her parents Daine and Numair leave for the Dragonlands. Daine’s parent’s can’t return them to the mortal realm, but they hope that the Dragons can.

This prompts a journey through the Divine Realm, facing off against divine threats, immortal opponents, and dealing with darklings. Through this journey, Gainel the dream lord, tells them that the Tortallan war has a greater source. Uusoae, the queen of chaos, is fighting her siblings, the gods. Ozorne’s efforts allow her to tap into the mortal realm to bolster her power. A group of spidrens almost kill Daine, and when Numair rescues her, they kiss. After a short conversation regarding that, Rikash and various other Stormwings carry them to the Dragonlands. Kitten’s grandparents bring them back to the mortal realm.

The book ends with a description of the battle of Port Legann. Rikash is killed in the battle. Daine pursues Ozorne when he flees, and kills him. Then, Uusoae appears and tries to kill Daine. Father Universe and Mother Flame imprison Uusoae. The major gods demand that Daine choose between the Divine and Mortal realms, forever. Daine ultimately chooses a mortal life.

Contrast and Morality

Uusoae and The Gods, Order and Chaos

This is one of the most important moral threads throughout the entire novel: the Skinners that Daine and Numair fight at the beginning are Uusoae’s servants. Ozorne manages to do as much damage as he does because he’s serving Uusoae. Order and Chaos is one of the archetypal literary themes, along with Light and Dark, Life and Death, and innumerable others. Pierce uses shades of this archetype and trope in her writing, with the myth of when Uusoae will break free and consume the gods being an apocalyptic metaphor. Gainel shows Daine and Numair a chess game that pits them and the Gods against Uusoae and Ozorne.

But, Pierce’s morality in this universe is more complex than the base she draws from. Pierce brings up that both humans and Gainel have aspects of order and chaos in them. “The Dream King smiled. —Like you mortals, I have one foot in the Divine Realms, the other in Chaos.” (p. 169). Gainel, is the most human of the gods, and I don’t just mean through his nature. He takes care to introduce the concepts of Uusoae’s campaign against the mortal world  in ways that don’t startle them. Gainel helps heal Daine when she’s brought before the gods after Uusoae’s assault on her. He and Daine are the moral centers of the story.

Pierce’s moral centers are part chaos, and Daine chooses a mortal life, with all the chaos inherent there. Mithros makes Daine choose because, “Wherever the Godborn go … trouble— disorder—‘ —Change,— interrupted Gainel, “follow. (p. 317). Yes, Uusoae is horrifying, both to the reader and to Daine. Yes, Daine gets sick near the Chaos vents, but that’s because it’s distilled chaos. As both Daine and Gainel show us, a little chaos mixed within order is a good thing.

Sarra and Daine’s Relationship

Another question of morality and feminism that Pierce raises in this book revolves around the relationship between Sarra and Daine. One of the first conversations they have is as follows.

“Speaking of war, I never raised you to be always fighting and killing. That’s not woman’s work.’ ‘It’s needful, Ma. You taught me a woman has to know how to defend herself.’ ‘I never!’ gasped Sarra, indignant. ‘You taught me when you were murdered in your own house,” said Daine quietly. … Against her mother’s hurt, she set Numair’s smile and the badger’s approval.” (p. 35-6).

They are both at fault here. Sarra denies the idea that Daine fighting has any merit. Daine unfairly lashes out at her mother for getting murdered. They don’t understand each other.

This plays out in different arenas as well. Sarra provides Daine, both at the beginning and end of the story, with dresses. While wearing a dress is not a problem, Daine has a well developed dislike of them. In Wild Magic, she has an entire litany regarding how uncomfortable they are that she often repeated to her mother. Sarra denies Daine the chance to make her own choices, and ignores them when she does make them. She treats Daine like a child, and Daine rebels against that. However, Daine also treats her mother like a child. She thinks that Sarra always, “needed looking after.” (p. 48).

It’s Queenclaw, the goddess of cats that provides the explanation. “Are you who you were?” (p. 46). Daine and Sarra have both changed. Sarra is a goddess, and Daine is a woman grown up. People change, and that we need to respect that, is the morality of Pierce’s story. By the end of the novel, Daine and Sarra realize that, and make steps to renew their relationship as changed people.

Questions of Morality

Freedom and Choice

The darkings are beings that Pierce ties deeply to the plot of her novel. They’re black jelly-like beings made of Ozorne’s blood and magic. He uses them to spy on the Tortallans and their allies, but Daine befriends the one that he sent trailing her and Numair. Eventually two others defect to her side, and we discover that Ozorne punished them severely for the smallest missteps.

One of the things that is unique to the Divine Realms is that despite expectations, beings created there have their own free will. Ozorne created the darkings over the winter, when he sheltered in the Divine Realms. However, he didn’t know that even beings made of blood, which traditionally ties magical constructs to their creator, have free will in the Divine Realms.

This blindness and his treatment of the darkings reminds us of the fact that Ozorne was the emperor of a slave company. After Daine and the rest discover what the darkings are, the darkings make progress. They have names, not just the numbers that Ozorne gave them. They learn to talk. One of the first things that Gold-Streak says after they can speak is, “I go. Talk to darkings. Teach them … Freedom,’ it said clearly. ‘Choosing.” (p. 159).

Freedom and choice are the two central tenants of feminism. As such, it’s fitting that Pierce incorporates them into the morality of this final novel. The darkings serve on yet another level in a series already about acknowledging the agency of various beings. Daine can talk to animals, and this communication forces the readers to see them as having agency and choices. The darkings, and eventually the Stormwings, grow to reach this same level over the course of the novel and the series.

What is the purpose of Stormwings?

In addition to information about the gods and the underpinnings of the wider universe, this story reveals more about the origins of the immortals. Daine says that immortals are born of mortal dreams. She asks Riskash who dreamt of Stormwings and why. He responds,

“Ages ago, a traveler form the mortal realms went from place to place and found only the leavings of war—the starving, the abandoned, the dead. … She wished for a creature that was so repulsive, living on war’s aftermath, that even humans would think twice before battle. That creature would defile what mortal killers left, so that humans couldn’t lie about how glorious a soldier’s death is.” (p. 218-9)

That is the morality that lies at the center of all of Pierce’s work from this point forward. War isn’t glorious. It’s ugly, it’s painful, it’s pure destruction. And that finds it’s roots in Stormwings.

After Rikash’s death, all Daine can do is scream. Barzha and Hebakh mourn in one of the most emotionally affecting moments in the story. All for a Stormwing.

Considering that the series started with Daine utterly despising Stormwings, the moral shift is especially notable. Mithros and the other gods moved to ban Stormwings from the mortal realm. After a knee-jerk moment where Daine agrees with them, she argues against the gods and manages to convince them that Stormwings should stay. “Stormwings aren’t humans. They aren’t gods. They are what they were made to be. … How can you begrudge a mortal home to anything that might scare two-leggers off war?” (p. 321-2). The morality of war’s aftermath is nonexistent from Pierce’s perspective. From this moment forward, when we see Stormwings we are reminded of their purpose.

Daine and Numair’s Relationship

The Tamora Pierce Wiki says that Numair was born in 424 HE. Realm of the Gods takes place in 452 HE, making him 28. Daine is sixteen at the time of Realm of the Gods and when she starts a romantic relationship with Numair. This twelve year age gap is the center of a tangled knot of morality, feminism, and the problematic. It’s also an example on how morality, especially in the romantic arena, has changed in the twenty-two years since the book’s initial publication.

I first read this book when I was twelve, roughly the same number of years after it was published. No one else I knew had read it. I was in the phase of my reading development where I accepted the romantic relationships presented to me by the author without question. The one between Daine and Numair wasn’t any different for me than the one between George and Alanna in Pierce’s previous books. It wasn’t very different than the one between Arwen and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, or Harry and Ginny in Harry Potter.

When I go back to this book, years later—heavily feminist, heavily liberal—I’m conflicted. I can’t ignore that part of me that’s twelve years old and watching these two characters fall in love. I’m better educated now than I was then. I understand why relationships between people with similar age gaps, especially when one is Daine’s age is supremely problematic in real life. But I still ship it. I also understand why people don’t ship it, and that our various viewpoints will color our opinions on this relationship and Pierce’s depiction of it.

That said, let’s get into what happens in the text.

The Problems

In real life, if someone Numair’s age was interested in someone Daine’s age, it would be illegal. The attention to pedophilia in the media, the law, and in fandom spaces has changed in the twenty years since it was first published. The power dynamics between them would be nigh insurmountable. The older person would be grooming the younger and it would be almost inherently toxic. Pierce doesn’t address those power dynamics at all.

Numair was once Daine’s teacher, which already puts them on unequal footing regarding power dynamics in their relationship. Pierce never addresses this. One of the people that Sarra hears prayers from is a woman of Snowsdale. She’s serving as a midwife for Nonia, a girl Daine knew, who’s only a year older than Daine, who’s going though breech birth. This is the closest Pierce comes to addressing the fact that someone Daine’s age is too young for sex and the things that typically come after it. (Pregnancy charms notwithstanding.)

Pierce instead, tries to make it a cultural norm that sixteen years old is an adult in her universe. This is a massive clash of the morality in universe and out of it. The morality of our world would paint a sixteen year old as an adolescent, and the social mores surrounding a potential relationship are vastly skewed because of that divergent point.

Daine is the moral center of the novel and our point of view character. The fact that Pierce has Daine endorse the relationship between her and Numair skews the book’s morality, especially given the change in public opinion since it was published.

Undoubtedly, there are more problematic elements in this relationship, more issues that I have either not addressed or not noticed. Feel free to point those out to me in the comments.

The Good Things

The one thing that keeps me from seeing Numair as incredibly, incandescently skeevy is that we see the moment he falls in love. At the end of the prologue, when the barrier falls, the magic users all feel linked in this awareness. In this linked state, Numair feel’s Daine’s eyelashes on his cheek and thinks, “Suddenly he learned something that he’d never considered before.” (xiv). That is the moment he falls in love with Daine; it’s not something that he’s been feeling for years and manipulating Daine into a position where she’d reciprocate.

In addition, it seems to be something he tries very hard to suppress. The first half of the book is filled with moments where he seems to be reaching out to her, and then pulling back. One other situation where Pierce’s depiction of their relationship is healthy is that, immediately after the realization and first kiss, they have a conversation about it. Numair even says that it doesn’t feel right, someone his age falling in love with someone her age. They talk about the issues surrounding their ages. They talk about the difference between sex and love and marriage in an exchange that delights me for the discussion of it as much as it embarrasses me.

Daine and Numair eventually agree to table that conversation until after the war is over. Once they reunite after the battle of Port Legann, Daine kisses him and Numair blearily proposes. Daine laughs it off with a, “Maybe someday.” (p. 336). We know from later books that they do get married, nine years later. The snippets we see of their relationship through the rest of Pierce’s books depicts a relationship that’s healthy, and one that they choose to enter and maintain willingly.

My opinion of the morality of the relationship rests solely on the fact that it’s what Daine chooses. Choice is the central feminist tenant. Not all choices can be perfect; people make mistakes. It may be that for a lot of people Daine and Numair’s relationship is a mistake. But it’s one we have to respect a person’s right to make.

Conclusion

Morality is a confusing mess and it’s all influenced by a person’s personal lens. In The Realm of the Gods, Pierce presents a large number of different moral situations, and shows contrasts about a large number of them. Everyone’s opinions about morality are different, and it may be we disagree about them. That is perfectly fine. Again, if you have any burning opinions you want to share, please do so in the comments. I find Pierce’s morality overall forgivable, though I do admit that in the twenty years since she first published these books, conventional morality has changed around them.

It may be that if she was writing this story again today, it would be different. But I believe, that even if it would be different, she would still try to make her work feminist, even if she fails in places. As I have said before, her feminism and her problematic elements always continue to improve. There are always stumbling blocks on the way to improvement. I hope you’ll stick with me as I continue to unpack the feminist elements and the stumbling blocks alike.


Image Courtesy of Atheneum Books

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Past and Present Overlap at the Muster of Rohan

Katie

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past

It’s been too long! Finally, after a few chapters of non-stop action (you know, in relative terms) “The Muster of Rohan” brings us back to the nice, familiar ground of landscape descriptions. I’ve missed it. You must have noticed: last essay I had to pick a prose champion that didn’t mention trees or stars. In any case, “The Muster of Rohan” is an effective calm-before-the-storm moment, so long you are willing to include churning, gathering gloom under the umbrella of calm. It’s a quiet chapter, and there isn’t necessarily a lot that happens. But I like it despite and because of that. It’s a good companion to “The Passing of the Grey Company” and features small, potent character moments that tie together past and present.

The Insupportable Weight of Middle-earth

“The Passing of the Grey Company” leverages the past as an asset to the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn is given direction and armed support by the Dúnedain, figures of his own past. He travels under the Dwimorberg to collect an army of long-dead ghosts who are atoning for past sins. And he is able to do that because of his own past, his heritage stretching back through the heirs of Gondor to Isildur himself. This all works to cultivate a sense that the world is on our heroes’ side—that history is unspooling in their favor, and all Sauron’s efforts are simply failed attempts to veer things off course.

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maybe my favorite Éomer picture?

This sense is quickly set on its head in “The Muster of Rohan.” The universe and the physical world suddenly seem to become much more ominous. This is done through all the misty landscapes and looming mountains, of course. It’s made more manifestly obvious by the darkness that the Gondorian scout Hirgon saw “rise and creep across the sky” as he rode to Dunharrow, “eating up the stars.”

Merry relates a similar sort of feeling. After years of loving distant mountains through the windowpanes of stories, their actual presence leaves him unsettled. “He loved mountains, or had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth.” The world possess a menacing, ominous weight.

Past and Present

But it’s more than that. Tolkien has always edged his landscapes with danger, a sense that they exist and operate independently of those walking through them.

In “The Muster of Rohan” there is also a mounting sense of the indifference of history. When Tolkien has brought up the ruins of civilizations in the past, there is an imminence to them. Their greatness is a judgment on the lesser times that followed, or an inspiration to those in the present. In any case, they are remembered. Those who are forgotten are those who strayed into evil, into moral darkness and historical. And even some of those are remembered—there is, after all, the big ghost mountain from a few pages back.

There is less assurance of this in “The Muster of Rohan.” Théoden’s arrival at Dunharrow features reference to a people who have been forgotten:

“Great standing-stones that had been carved in the likeness of men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies. Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features save the dark holes of their eyes that still stared sadly at the passers-by. The Riders hardly glanced at them. The Púkel-men they called them, and heeded them little: no power or terror was left in them… Such was the dark Dunharrow, the work of long-forgotten men. Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it.”

The Púkel-men are an unknown entity, forgotten to the point that no one bothers to look at their remnants. This indifference of the past is particularly interesting considering that the book’s first two chapters deal with Gondor, a place defined by its memory and remembered past.

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From Dark Dunharrow

This backdrop serves the role of a typical Tolkien backdrop. It acts as a spotlight or counterweight to the character’s emotional statuses. It’s clearest in Théoden.  The king knows that some serious shit is about to go down and he’s not certain he’ll make it out. It’s unclear whether this is due to some kind of premonition or if simply the reality of an old man riding into battle with difficult odds. But it’s on his mind: “For a while the king sat silent. At last he spoke. “So we come to it in the end,” he said: “the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away.”” And later: “Say to Denethor that in this hour the King of the Mark himself will come down to the land of Gondor, though maybe he will not ride back.”

There’s a strong sense of loss in nearly all of Théoden’s words in this chapter. And in the context of the lost, forgotten men discussed just pages before, there’s a sense of existential somberness that threads through this chapter to mirror the actual, physical darkness that’s spreading. And it’d be easy for this to become too dour, too fast. But it doesn’t, because Théoden has grown into such a bright, hopeful character. His kindness to Merry continues. He makes a point of calling Éomer and Éowyn son and daughter (rather than sister-son and sister-daughter). And he never does this with a sense of despair or desperation—continuing his countering of Denethor—but simply because it is a good or kind thing to do.

If I recall correctly, Théoden never really expresses a need to be remembered in songs. That desire is not necessarily a bad thing in Tolkien’s universe, of course. But Théoden’s seeming indifference to it, paired with the looming, Púkel-man-shaped threat of falling into oblivion, makes the end of this chapter really lovely. As the king leads his troops in a rush towards Minas Tirith, Tolkien steps out of the time of his story for a moment. And he lets us know that Théoden, whether or not he asked for it, will be long remembered in song. This insistence upon memory is a nifty little counter to the forgetting from earlier in the chapter. And it’s a needed strand of brightness, and a little solace for those of us who know what’s coming in 50 pages or so.

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a rare and beautiful appearance of movie-dad-theoden

Final Comments

  • A quick caveat. It’s more than possible that the Púkel-men had loads of songs about them at some point. Or that Théoden will one day be forgotten. But in the context of the fiction of this chapter—and in the work’s larger themes of hope and despair—I do think that the contrast is meaningful.
  • So, uh, it’s been quite a wild ride in the Tolkien fandom recently? You can read about all of it here (and thank you to my friend John for showing me such a handy link).  We are getting a five-season Amazon TV show with a budget that is literally the GDP of a small country. We are getting a Tolkien biopic starring Nicholas Hoult and Lilly Collins, which has just finished filming. The Fall of Gondolin is coming out courtesy of editor Christopher Tolkien, who either has a very loose definition of retirement or is just getting his named slapped on things now. And, in truly the darkest of all these timelines, Universal Studios is possibly building a… Middle-earth… Land? as part of a fourth theme park in Florida. I am trying to retain some optimism regarding any of this, with increasingly bad results. Maybe it’ll be fine? It’ll probably be garbage? I don’t know? If Gandalf won’t tell people not to weep neither will I.
  • I would rather Théoden be my king than Aragorn, don’t tell.
  • For reasons of time and length I didn’t really have a chance to talk much about Merry. But he is delightful in this chapter! His discussion of the mountains (quoted below in a place you can probably guess) is lovely on an aesthetic level and a nice exploration of Merry himself. He’s always been a pretty bright, curious, and intelligent hobbit (remember all his planning back in Fellowship?). So, it’s nice to catch up with him here when his theoretical learning and enjoyment becomes reality. It’s also a nice mirror with Frodo and Sam’s discussion of stories, which takes place less than a day later. His reference to how he’ll be remembered in songs also nicely highlights the chapter’s concerns.
  • Does anyone remember whether or not they recognized Dernhelm as Éowyn on their first read? I don’t remember, but can’t imagine that I would have guessed, despite some somewhat heavy-handed clues. I was a curious child but never an observant one.
  • Also, all the props to Éowyn for choosing Dernhelm as her undercover name, which roughly translates to Secret Helmet. Keep ‘em guessing, girl. What a power play.
  • It’s a small moment, but I like the reference to Éowyn quelling the potential discontent among her people. It’s a nice indication that while she resents her duty, she’s also probably pretty good at it. I also like her relationship with Merry, which I’m sure I’ll write about later. Let no one say that Éowyn’s fight for liberation is not intersectional.
  • “In the midst of these gloomy thoughts he suddenly remembered that he was very hungry.”
  • I got a kick out of how this chapter starts. “Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of war and the onset of the Shadow. And even as Pippin stood at the great gate of the City and saw the Prince of Dol Amroth ride in with his banners, the King of Rohan came down out of the hills.” It’s hard not to read the opening line of this chapter as Tolkien breathing a sigh of relief. He finally has all his story lines relatively matched up!
  • Prose Prize: Merry looked out in wonder upon this strange country, of which he had heard many tales upon their long road. It was a skyless world, in which his eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slope, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist. He sat for a moment half-dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. This is how I too felt when I saw big mountains for the first time. Though I was kinda into the vast, ominous, weightiness, so I’m not sure what that says about me.
  • Contemporary to this chapter: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum make it to Minas Morgul. Pippin has his long day in Minas Tirith, and the next chapter (“The Siege of Gondor)” overlaps with the second half of this one. Most of Book V is on the same timeline now, though Frodo and Sam are still behind.

All movie stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. The depiction of Eomer is from Zuzana

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GRRM’s With Morning Comes Mistfall is a love letter to fantasy

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote With Morning Comes Mistfall during his productive summer of 1971. The short story was published a few months after The Second Kind of Loneliness, in the May, 1973 issue of Analog.

“Two stories appearing in the field’s top magazine so close together attracted attention, and ‘Mistfall’ was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, the first of my works to contend for either honor.” (George R. R. Martin in Dreamsongs)

Although it lost both awards, Martin considered this story to be one of his finest works to date. Decades later, it remains a poignant and effective testimony to its author’s love for the fantastic.

A flying castle amid a sea of clouds

With Morning Comes Mistfall brings us to the distant planet of Wraithworld. The planet is popular among tourists not because of its beautiful scenery, but because of the wraiths that give it its name. There’s no actual proof that such creatures exist, but the reports of sights and mysterious disappearances are enough to keep the legend alive. 

The wraith myth is aided by the unusual mists that shroud Wraithworld. With every sunset, mistrise takes place, and the whole land is covered by thick mists except for the highest mountains. With morning comes mistfall, and the mists recede back into the valleys. Wraiths can be wherever the mists are.

Our narrator is a journalist of unknown name and gender coming to Wraithworld to accompany a scientific expedition. Headed by Dr. Charles Dubowski, the expedition seeks concrete evidence of the wraiths, if there’s any to be found. Dubowski believes the wraiths aren’t real, and he has the resources to scan Wraithworld and find out.

The headquarters of the expedition is the Castle Cloud hotel, the only permanent human habitation in the planet. Standing tall above the mists even at night, the hotel is always safe from the wraiths. The hotel owner, Paul Sanders, isn’t very happy about his new guests; he fears Dubowski’s expedition will ruin the magic that brings people to the planet, regardless of the outcome.

During the expedition, the narrator slowly falls in love with the uncanny beauty of Wraithworld, befriending Sanders in the process. They explore the planet together, until there comes an opportunity for the narrator to cover a different and potentially bigger story elsewhere. Jumping from planet to planet and story to story, the narrator only returns to Wraithworld as Dubowski calls a press conference to announce his findings.

As predicted, Dubowski found no evidence of the wraiths, concluding they don’t exist. This effectively kills the legend and the tourism that came attached to it, including Sanders’ business. Within a few years, Sanders is gone and his Castle Cloud is abandoned and crumbling. Wraithworld is now just another unremarkable human colony:

“Otherwise the planet hasn’t changed much. The mists still rise at sunset, and fall at dawn. The Red Ghost is still stark and beautiful in the early morning light. The forests are still there, and the rockcats still prowl.

Only the wraiths are missing.

Only the wraiths.”

A strange sort of beauty

People will have different opinions on Martin’s prose, but it’s usually not one of the reasons why they remember his writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but he did write lines like “the sight of their arousal was arousing” (A Dance With Dragons).

Still, one of the biggest merits of said prose is to showcase Martin’s worldbuilding skills. If you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), you know what he’s capable of. Martin creates entire cities, complex family trees, regional cultures, rich history and mythology, all while making them believable and engaging. It’s no wonder so many people discuss the series with academic devotion.

I’ve been somewhat missing those skills since I started the GRRM Reading Project. The worlds he builds in his short stories are not bad, they’re just not memorable either. Perhaps the format doesn’t help, but worldbuilding is more than just long descriptions and appendices full of names. In fact, With Morning Comes Mistfall shows that you don’t need those to bring a setting to life.

Despite the generic names  (“Wraithworld” and “Castle Cloud” are right there with “Seven Kingdoms” and “Narrow Sea”), the setting never feels generic. Martin’s exceptional skills as worldbuilder manifest in how he creates atmosphere and mood. The world becomes tangible not because of what he describes, but how he describes it. This carries throughout the entire story, and the Wraithworld we meet with the narrator is not the same planet after Dubowski’s expedition.

Wraithworld needs to feel so compelling for the story to work. We need to fall in love with its beauty and wonder before we can mourn what was lost after the wraiths are gone. There we’ll find the central thesis of the story.

Eternal war between sun and the mists

You know how sometimes just one line can elevate an entire story to a different level? The final two sentences of With Morning Comes Mistfall have that effect for me. My reaction upon reading them was a bunch of exclamation points, because those two sentences encapsulate the central conflict of the story and what makes it both beautiful and sad.

There are two main tensions in the story: the obvious constant clash between Sanders and Dubowski, and the more subtle battle between the mists and the sun for the lands of Wraithworld. Both conflicts complement each other and the story’s themes.

Sanders and Dubowski antagonize each other from the start, since they represent very different positions. Sanders is passionate and romantic, defender of mystery and wonder, keeper of the unanswered questions.

“Answers. Always they have to have answers. But the questions are so much finer. Why can’t they leave them alone?”

It’s not clear how much he actually believes the legends of the wraiths or how much he simply doesn’t care to know the truth. He’s protective of that legend all the same, because of the enchantment and awe it lends to the planet.

“Each guy who touches down here is secretly hoping he’ll have an adventure with the wraiths, and find out all the answers personally. So he doesn’t. So he slaps on a blaster and wanders around the mist forests for a few days, or a few weeks, and finds nothing. So what? He can come back and search again. The dream is still there, and the romance, and the mystery.”

It’s telling that Sanders disappears with the wraiths, his fate unknown. There’s no place for him in a mediocre human colony, one among thousands, a world stripped of all its magic.

Dubowski is the one responsible for that transformation. He’s excessively practical, cold towards the beauty of Wraithworld. He doesn’t explore the planet unless he has to and never bother contemplating mistfall or mistrise. He doesn’t seek answers driven by curiosity, but by arrogance. He’s not evil, but he lacks humanity.

There was silence. Then Sanders spoke, but his voice was beaten. ‘Just one question,’ he said softly. ‘Why?’

That brought Dubowski up short, and his smile faded. ‘You never have understood, have you, Sanders?’ he said. ‘It was for truth. To free this planet from ignorance and superstition.’

At first it may seem that Dubowski won: his expedition is successful and he proves the wraiths aren’t real, just as he believed. Meanwhile, Sanders loses his business and everything he loved about Wraithworld. Yet Sanders has the existential victory, since the narrative sides with him. The story doesn’t celebrate Dubowski’s discoveries, but mourns the loss of the wraiths and everything they represented. In the end, Sanders is proven right.

(Martin is a fan of existential victories. Characters that lose and fail and die, but who are ultimately proven right by the narrative because of the choices they made and the values they defended. Think Ned Stark here)

Despite clearly siding with Sanders, the story doesn’t feel anti-science. The problem with Dubowski is never the science he represents, but his cold approach to it. He wants answers for the wrong reasons and never bothers actually knowing the planet he’s supposed to be exploring. 

The final dialogue between Dubowski and Sanders underlines this well. They discuss a possible colonization of the Wraithworld, now that the expedition proves the planet to be wraith-free:

“‘You haven’t freed Wraithworld. You’ve destroyed it. You’ve stolen its wraiths, and left an empty planet.’

Dubowski shook his head. ‘I think you’re wrong. They’ll find plenty of good, profitable ways to exploit this planet. But even if you were correct, well, it’s just too bad. Knowledge is what man is all about. People like you have tried to hold back progress since the beginning of time. But they failed, and you failed. Man needs to know.’

‘Maybe,’ Sanders said. ‘But is that the only thing man needs? I don’t think so. I think he also needs mystery, and poetry, and romance. I think he needs a few unanswered questions to make him brood and wonder.’

Dubowski stood up abruptly, and frowned. ‘This conversation is as pointless as your philosophy, Sanders. There’s no room in my universe for unanswered questions.’

‘Then you live in a very drab universe, Doctor.’”

This isn’t the last time Martin tackles similar issues; Dubowski is just one of his excessively practical, no-feelings-allowed types, and the narrative always proves them wrong. Compare the above dialogue with this one from A Song for Lya (1974), for example:

“You think the Shkeen have found the answer to the mysteries of creation. But look at them. The oldest civilized race in known space, but they’ve been stuck in the Bronze Age for fourteen thousand years. We came to them. Where are their spaceships? Where are their towers?”

“Where are our bells?” I said. “And our joy? They’re happy, Dino. Are we? Maybe they’ve found what we’re still looking for. Why the hell is man so driven, anyway? Why is he out to conquer the galaxy, the universe, whatever? Looking for God, maybe…? Maybe. He can’t find him anywhere, though, so on he goes, on and on, always looking. But always back to the same darkling plain in the end.”

What Martin says, in both dialogues, is that we need more. We need more than just the practical aspects of life, more than just basic needs. Answers will not suffice, because what we’re longing for is this unanswerable, intangible thing. We need meaning, and hope, and wonder, and possibility.

Stories can give that to us. Genre fiction, more specifically.

More real than real

Few writers understand the appeal of fantasy as well as Martin:

“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.” (x)

I’m not saying this is one of the best quotes ever written, but it totally is.

Throughout Martin’s bibliography, we can see this appreciation for fantasy in different shapes. With stories like ASOIAF, he establishes a dialogue with other fantasy works. He examines and deconstructs popular tropes, reminding us why we loved them in first place. Then you have stories like With Morning Comes Mistfall, that read as a meta commentary on the importance of fantasy—here less as a clearly-defined genre and more as imagination and dream.

Meta stories are hard to write, but With Morning Comes Mistfall is successful because it also works as an independent story. It doesn’t feel like Martin is hammering a point home, but that the point is a consequence of the story he’s telling.

Martin shows us a world involved in the mists of fantasy, where mysterious creatures and haunting sights can hide. It’s a world full of possibilities and unanswered questions. Then the light of Dubowski’s concrete answers drives the mists away, and it’s not a coincidence that the story is named after this phenomenon. When we see the Wraithworld again, everything has changed. On a surface level, only the wraiths are missing. But gone with them is everything they represent, the mood, the atmosphere, the meaning.

By the time we reach the final line, With Morning Comes Mistfall seems to ask us: now do you see? Do you see why we need the wraiths, the legends, the possibilities? Why we need mystery and fantasy and unanswered questions? Do you see now what those stories can do for us?

Next time: following the order of Dreamsongs would lead us to my all-time favorite “A Song for Lya“. Since I talked about this one before and my feelings for it haven’t changed, we’ll visit the strange and disturbing “This Tower of Ashes” instead.


 

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