I have already argued that Sleeping Beauty is Walt Disney’s feminist masterpiece. But now it’s time to argue for something else…
At first glance the movie seems to be a typical fairytale. The beautiful princess is in a cursed slumber, and the prince must save her with True Love’s Kiss. However, upon further inspection of characters and a few coincidences one can discern the true nature of this animated movie. It is, in fact, an alternate version of Westeros. It is the story of A Game of Thrones played between the Houses of Lannister, Baratheon, Targaryen, and most importantly, the Blackfyre pretenders.
This is most obvious in characters’ visual traits.
King Stefan is certainly a Baratheon. Specifically he is Steffon Baratheon, although probably not King Robert’s father. He is dressed in bold black and yellow robes, trimmed with gold, and his hair is dark as jet. Though not easily moved to anger, Steffon can and will fly into a frothy rage. He threatens war against King Hubert (who we will get to later) when the latter suggests that Steffon would make a poor grandfather to their future descendants. He loves to drink, especially if it is not his own.
He even begins the movie by proclaiming a holiday and inviting every man, woman, and child “… of high or low estate…” to his castle for his daughter’s christening. Almost all of these traits are the hallmarks of House Baratheon.
Another obvious noble is King Hubert Lannister. Though his hair color has faded, the paleness of it suggests he might have been blond once. He is decked in head to toe with scarlet and gold robes, their volume is evidence of the extreme wealth of the Westerlands, as is Hubert’s weight. Seven hells, Hubert even has the money to build a brand new castle for his son and daughter in law. He calls the castle (which he says has “40 bedrooms” and a dining hall) a “honeymoon cottage.” Hubert is also quick to come to blows when his honor or the honor of his family is questioned. He tries to beat Steffon with a fish after Hubert assumed a slight against his son, Philip.
Together, the Lannisters and Baratheons of Disnesteros hope to join their houses in marriage. Both have only one child, and the combined the might of the Stormlands and the wealth of the Lannisters would make a powerful alliance. Powerful enough to even challenge the mighty dragons of Old Valyria, House Targaryen. Why would the ever watchful and often suspicious Targeryens allow such a merger to take place? Because there is already a Targaryen on the inside to make sure that the royal interests are safe:
Yes, with her golden-blonde hair and dark robes, Queen Leah is Blood of the Dragon, and her daughter will be after her. Aurora herself has hair even paler than her mother’s, and her eyes are constantly cited as being purple in color. The children of House Targaryen are always charged to maintain the peace and surety of their parents’ rule. Under the watchful gaze of Queen Leah, the other Targaryens can be assured that no treachery is afoot. Besides, the children of Aurora, thus the grandchildren of the reigning Targaryen monarch, stand a chance to be married back into the fold. Thus, through another marriage, the Targaryens would cement their control over both the Stormlands and Westerlands. They play the game well.
Of course, one could argue that there is too much magic in this story for it to take place on Westeros. However, let us not forget that magic is alive and well in the world. The sorcerers of Qarth know it, the Alchemist Guild in King’s Landing uses it to make wildfyre, the Maesters maintain Valyrian candles that still burn. Even beyond The Wall there is magic, and it is this magic that is used for the young Princess Aurora.
Yep, that’s right. These three feminist badasses are Children of the Forest. The Three Good Fairies are very short even though they seem to be of an advanced age, just like the Children. Their names are indicators of their true nature as well. “Flora” means flowers, “Fauna” means animals, and “Merryweather” is… good weather. All the Children we have met so far have been named for the natural world, and this keeps with the theme.
Of course this all leaves us with one final question. Who is Maleficent?
She is a member of the Blackfyre family.
Black robes and purple accents are not far off from the blacks and reds of the Blackfyres. Those of Old Valyria are known to have a deep connection with magic. Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers, a Targaryen bastard, was said to have dabbled in the magical arts, allowing him to listen in on any conversation and find the king’s enemies before they could strike. Maleficent just studied more, locked up in her castle. She skinchanges with her raven, Diablo, so much that the raven has become intelligent. She even is associated with the dragon; much as the common folk said that Robb Stark could turn into a wolf, some say Maleficent can turn into a dragon.
More than ever, Maleficent has a reason to disrupt the potential marriage of Aurora and Philip. An alliance that strong, and under Targaryen control, would make a Blackfyre invasion from Essos simply unfeasible. Even with the last dragon remaining to House Blackfyre, the alliance is too great to surmount. We have already seen how tenuous the alliance is, as Steffon and Hubert come to blows over a drunken quarrel and threaten war on each other. All Maleficent has to do is disrupt the alliance and Disnesteros will tear itself apart with civil war.
Alas, Maleficent’s plans come to naught. Philip proves himself a true member of his house:
And if all of this doesn’t convince you, perhaps the most obvious reference to the true location of Sleeping Beauty is a brief line from Flora, as she makes her plans to preserve the Baratheon/Lannister/Targaryen alliance: “Even walls have ears.” It’s downright chilling.
All images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Asian-Inspired Fantasy The Tiger’s Daughter Uplifts and Disappoints
I’ve read a mountain of books in my lifetime. I may not get through as many in a year as I did when I was fourteen and the only responsibilities I had were homework and chores, but I still read a lot. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book as vivid and rich as The Tiger’s Daughter. The lyrical prose, deeply human, fleshed-out characters—all of these are things The Tiger’s Daughter does well. The things Rivera can do with description make my heart sing. It’s also pretty damn gay, so that makes an exquisite story even more precious.
But it’s not a home-run by any means, especially where worldbuilding is concerned. As much as I went in ready to love it wholeheartedly, I find myself conflicted now that I’ve finished it.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Even gods can be slain.
The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach, using a combination of imperial might and sabotage to devastate and subjugate the nomadic Qorin tribes.
Generations later, the decaying imperial line has led to rampant corruption and ruined fields—and worst of all, the demons once kept at bay by the Hokkaran Emperor have taken advantage of the crumbling protective border walls and begun to overrun villages and forests.
But against all odds, a destined pair of warriors rise from the ashes, the last hope of a devastated people and a fractured nation. This is the story of Barsalyya Shefali and O-Shizuka, who are unafraid to face the demons. They will save their world and become legends—or they will die trying.
The Good Stuff
The majority of the novel is written in epistolary style, as Shefali recounts the shared history she and O-Shizuka have: their adventures, their fights against demons and bandits, and how they fall in love. It is a love letter penned by a character who barely speaks more than five words together on page, which sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does. There are scenes from the ‘present’—O-Shizuka reading these letters—sprinkled in, so even from the beginning we know a few aspects of where the story-within-the-story is going.
Rivera makes good use of the second person narrative voice, and that’s saying something, because I normally hate second person more than even first person point of view. It does require buying into the conceit of Shefali writing letters about certain events that O-Shizuka was present for. However, that didn’t bring me out of it the way it did for other reviewers whose responses I’ve read. By the time I got to the end, Shefali’s purpose in writing made perfect sense to me. I admit, I’m a sucker for the thematic significance of her writing her love story so beautifully when she doesn’t speak much verbally and admits to struggling with writing as well.
Reading a story with two queer, non-white women as protagonists is refreshing as hell. Korrasami is still the bar for me for intersectional queer female representation on TV, so when I heard about The Tiger’s Daughter, Ι was immediately intrigued. While there are significant flaws to the cultural underpinnings of the protagonists (which I’ll address below), I do want to applaud Rivera for offering diverse queer representation. Having two queer protagonists of color is impressive, and the publication of The Tiger’s Daughter is a sign that much is changing for the better in young adult fiction. To this aspect, I say “bravo!” and “more please!”.
As characters, I found both Shefali and O-Shizuka engaging and interesting. I was surprised at how much I learned about Shefali from the epistolary format, as I’ve always found second person to be distancing. I did not find it so here. Shefali’s writing is surprisingly vulnerable for someone who shares so little of themselves with others. Yet this is hardly surprising the more you read. I got the impression right away that Shefali was only this open, free, and emotive where O-Shizuka was concerned, and the story did not let me down in that regard.
The contrast between O-Shizuka’s fierce temper and strong will and Shefali’s quiet power pulled me in right away. They’re very different characters, but they work well as foils in both a literary sense and as romantic and battle partners. O-Shizuka can speak volumes with only a few words, can cut to the quick with a retort as quick as her swordplay. Shefali may not speak aloud much, but we know she’s thinking and feeling far more than she says because we’re with her as she relates it. O-Shizuka is hot as fire and fluid as water where Shefali is solid as earth and quick as the wind. They temper each other, refine each other, and better each other with every struggle they face.
While I expected more action and focus on the demonic corruption, I was not disappointed by the love story. This is impressive, because I don’t usually like when romance takes over the main plot. To me, their love story was organically woven into the rest of what they encounter and fit well with the tone and pace of the narrative. I thought the love scene in the middle was quite lovely. I’m picky about sex scenes, but I really liked how this one was done. Tasteful, steamy, and still focused on the emotions between the characters more than the actions themselves. Just how I like it.
Overall, it felt less like a ~romance~ and more like two people growing into and toward each other. They’re destined to be together, their selves and futures intertwined from their birth, “like two pine needles.” They just also happen to love each other romantically and enjoy sexy times together. Oh, and fighting tigers, demons, and bandits together.
It’s a long book and doesn’t get anywhere quickly. While some may find it dense or plodding, I prefer the term stately. Like a royal procession, it’s regal in its pace and always stays focused on its ultimate goal. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are my favorite of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels thus far, so it should come to no surprise that I enjoy a slowly-paced book if it’s beautifully written and filled with symbolism and three-dimensional characters. I found The Tiger’s Daughter to be all of these things. If you’re a lover of rich language and character work like me, the pace is worth it. However, I can see how this could be a turn-off for someone looking for more of an action-packed tale of battling demons left and right.
As I mentioned previously, there aren’t as many demon slayings as one would expect based on the official descriptions. However, I do think it builds a great deal of anticipation for the next two books (this is a planned trilogy). Most significant to me is the growing sense of decay and corruption that mirrors Shefali’s struggle. She chooses to battle inside her mind what the Emperor has chosen to ignore and gloss over in the kingdom. There’s a deep sense of wrongness about the world, of decay that seeps into everything. The corruption seeks to turn even our protagonists evil. It may be a slow start, but I hope that by the time we get to the second and third books, there will be a payoff.
The deepest and most pervasive issue with the book is its use of Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, and other East Asian cultures. Certain things stood out to me while I read—Shefali using the term ‘flat-faced’ to describe herself was jarring given how intense of an insult this is for many women of East Asian descent. “Ricetongue” doesn’t work well as a slur, either. Under the right circumstances, and with proper in-universe explanation, I could see this being a powerful insult. Rice requires a sedentary lifestyle to cultivate, so that could be a way for the Qorin to disparage the lifestyle of people who hate them. If the Hokkarans had conscripted conquered people groups, Qorin included, to work the rice paddies ‘ricetongue’ would also function as a means of calling out their oppression. Rivera goes neither of these routes. As it stands, boiling down a Japanese-coded culture to an insult based on them eating rice comes across as simplistic and silly.
A female reviewer of Japanese descent called Laurelinvanyar on Goodreads has a thorough takedown of the many flawed moments of both appropriation and misunderstanding in the novel. I highly recommend reading her review as well as the comment thread to get a full picture of where the worldbuilding went wrong. Among other things, she points out that O-Shizuka’s dismissiveness toward the naginata —a weapon favored by many women in real history—is an egregious example of (likely unintentional) misogyny toward historical East Asian women.
Apart from those specific examples, the worldbuilding feels lazy in its reliance upon real-world history. Inspiration is one thing, but with how closely Rivera mirrors historical cultures, she opens herself up to critiques of appropriation. The missteps mentioned in the previous paragraphs could have been avoided if she, or her editor, had done proper research. The broader issues would have required more distancing from their real-life parallels.
The cultural conflict between Qorin and Hokkaran for example has at the same time both too much and not enough in common with the conflict between Mongols and Japanese. It’s close enough to draw almost one-to-one parallels in broad brush strokes, but not detailed enough to be accurate or respectful. Had she been more distant in her inspiration, less close to real-world parallels, the lack of ‘accuracy’ would not have been so stark. If you’re 9/10ths of a way toward Mongols by any other name, the 1/10 that doesn’t line up is going to stand out.
Either more research or less specificity with regard to real-world parallels could have fixed these problems. Both are things that a good editor and sensitivity reader will point out, and I’m disappointed that no one caught these issues until after publication. It’s deeply unfortunate because I enjoyed so much of the rest of the story.
At the end of the day, it’s closer to historical fiction than a true fantasy setting, but it’s not close enough to be a sensitive reflection on real issues. While I don’t think she intended it to be so, I understand why readers would find her execution of an “Asian-inspired fantasy setting” to be othering and exotifying. Just because she didn’t intend it doesn’t mean it’s not worth critiquing. Even unintentional choices can have negative consequences for the reader, and writers can never learn if such missteps aren’t acknowledged.
Final Score: I’m Torn
Were it not with the issues in worldbuilding, this would be the kind of story I want from fantasy literature. It’s immersive, expansive, and vivid. For the hours I spent reading this, I felt like I was in another world. Plus, I am all about divine girlfriends breaking barriers and killing demons.
At the same time, there are major flaws in way Rivera handled the cultural inspiration. The closeness to actual historical parallels invites deeper scrutiny than a less direct adaptation would have. I don’t think any of it stemmed from bad motives, but this was in dire need of a sensitivity reader or two. My sincere hope is that Rivera will understand where the critique of her use of worldbuilding stems from, listen, and do better in the sequel, The Phoenix Empress, which is scheduled for publication in August, 2018.
In short, there are a lot of things I really like about this book, but there is space for it to do better.
Images courtesy of Tor Books
The Expanse Season Two Still Fares Well As An Adaptation
The Expanse has had the seventh book in the series released this month, while its third season (meant to adapt the second half of the second book) is scheduled to come out some time next year. In other words, both the authors of the source material and of the adaptation are keeping busy, making it a very current show. So allow me to continue in my attempt to assess how it fared as an adaptation.
The second season works with the second half of Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the first half of Caliban’s War, the second installment. It continued its similarity to Game of Thrones as an adaptation by diverging from the source material significantly more than in the first year it was on air. The good news, however, is that the changes are not so dramatically for the worse as is usual, and in some cases are even for the better.
Warning: the following contains spoilers for both the show and the books.
Some problems remain from season one. Chiefly, two of them. One is the scope of the world as it is depicted on the show. The other are the universally dark and gritty visuals. Ganymede is supposed to have corridors carved in ice. Wouldn’t it have been awesome to see that? But now, just more indistinguishable black and grey.
The most significant difference between the books and the show in season two is, without a doubt, all the added drama. It’s everywhere. Every little thing that is routine in the books becomes exceedingly tense on the show. Starting with the Somnambulist, which is not taken by force – or near enough to force – in book!verse, but is simply a ship at OPA’s disposal that Holden is given by Fred. Continuing through Bobbie’s escape from her rooms in the UN compound; she simply walks away in the book and that’s it. And ending with the escape from Gynemedes, which, int he books, is not so much of an escape as simply, you know, leaving. I could keep listing other instances, but this serves as a good example of the sort of tension added for television.
Related to this is also the complete secrecy that surrounds everything on the show. The books work much better with the reality of modern technology where things are streamed immediately. Billions of people watch Eros crash into Venus live, for example, and the data available from what happens there is available to everyone. Or there is the whole thing with the zombie terminator attacking on Ganymede. On the show, it’s a huge secret Chrisjen has to exert extreme energy to ferret out. In the books, everyone knows and there is footage of the attack available. One of my favourite little moments is when Holden tries to hide his identity behind a scruffy beard as he comes to Ganymede, and you end his chapter feeling that he succeeded. Only to open Chrisjen’s chapter and find out that he really, really did not.
Secrecy adds drama, so it is understandable why the show decided to go this way. The need to keep viewers hooked is evident, too. And ending the season in a middle of a book, they needed a suitably dramatic bang to end with. So while all of these things make me roll my eyes, I do not truly blame the show for them. I feel the missed character beats much more keenly.
Captain James Holden
Holden is one character whose arc from the first half of Caliban’s War was adapted truly well. There was the inevitable added drama, as everywhere, but his essential story arc remained.
With regards to the end of Leviathan Wakes, however, the issues from season one continue, and Holden is treated as more of a boy scout by the show than he is by the book. One fantastic moment (though one that could hardly be adapted) was seeing inside Holden’s head when the Head Human Experimenter tried to convince him to join forces before Miller shot him. The reader can see, with intimate certainty, that Holden is this close to giving in when Miller pulls the trigger. We know for certain that it was done at just the right time. Yet Holden condemns Miller for it without the slightest trace of self-awareness, confident he would have resisted. It’s no doubt intentional, and it’s perfection. It should have been replaced by a similar scene suitable for the visual medium that would have conveyed the same. It wasn’t, and Holden’s character suffered for it.
On the other hand, I very much appreciate the change made to Holden’s dynamics with Naomi. In the books, when they start their romantic relationship, it turns out that not only has Naomi been in love with him for ages, so had pretty much every female on the Canterburry, because he is obviously God’s gift to womankind. It’s something to be thankful for that we don’t have to deal with that on our screens, even though I admit that the way book!Naomi handles Holden after that is exquisite.
I’m also very much in favour of the open communication that happens between them before they have sex in the books, as opposed to the “thick erotic tension” kind of deal the show went with. It would be easier to teach people about affirmative consent if there were actual examples of it in the media. There was a scene like that in the book, and guess what? It didn’t get adapted. Let’s all pretend at astonishment.
Dr. Praxidike Meng
I must admit that I was surprised when I saw he was one of the point of view characters. I neither knew nor expected it, and that in itself sums up the biggest problem with his show adaptation. He was very much pushed into the background. I understand why, I suppose – it might have been felt that there were too many new characters – but he lost a lot of his appeal when his role was cut. He is there to represent a valuable civilian point of view among all the trained soldiers and expert politicians. And his expertise adds a crucial dimension to the catastrophe of Gynamede.
Though if someone had to be cut short, I’m glad it was Dr. Meng. I understand they could hardly reduce Hodlen’s role, as much as I’d appreciate it, and both of the ladies are more interesting than Dr. Meng.
Still, I remember lamenting the sharp division between the first and second half of season 2 and pointing out that had Dr. Meng been included in some of the earlier episodes, it would have helped to make the transition more seamless. Now that I know he is one of the point of view characters, I feel this even more strongly.
Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala
I cannot quite decide whether Chrisjen is an adaptational success or failure. Because she is perfection on the show…but she is also quite different from the books. If I should compare book!Chrisjen to someone, it would probably be Miranda from Devil Wears Prada, or characters of that sort. She is not likable in any straightforward way, but at the same time, she has a charm to her that is oddly irresistible as much as you want to punch her in the fact at the same time.
Show!Chrisjen, on the other hand, is much softer on the surface, not showing her hard lines so obviously. Even when she swears, she does it with a kind of disarming smile that takes the edge off it. Book!Chrisjen is nothing but edges.
I don’t want to complain, because show!Chrisjen is one of the best things that ever happened to me, and there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either of their characterisations. But I cannot help but wonder how far gender stereotyping played a part in making Chrisjen less obviously hard. And it becomes especially problematic when paired with her stupidity in season 2, which takes the form of that oh-so-very-feminine failing of trusting too much in her friends, or ex-friends.
I wrote out my thoughts about that elsewhere in detail.To summarise, it was a subplot that prioritized a male character over a female one, and made Chrisjen look naive. But it was also an excellently done one. So while it troubles me, I cannot with a clear conscience say I wish it didn’t happen. I just hope it won’t again.
Additionally, one change I definitely appreciated was Chrisjen not being Errinwright’s subordinate on the show. It changed the dynamic significantly, and very much for the better. It also made this whole added subplot in season two possible.
Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper
Bobbie has a similar problem as Chrisjen: she, too, is made to look markedly more stupid on the show. Only as Chrisjen is effectively a genius, she ends up being just a little incompetent. Bobbie sometimes ends up looking downright stupid.
To be fair, her character is exceedingly hard to adapt. She has that in common with Dr. Meng. While Jim and Chrisjen constantly talk to people around them and even the things that are part of their inner monologue are easy to change to a personal conversation with someone close, Bobbie doesn’t have that option. She doesn’t have anyone close to her left. For a long time, the only person she talks to at all is the chaplain, whom she just dismisses in many different ways when he tries to ‘help’. There is no way to naturally have her talk about what she thinks and feels, because being alone is an important part of her character arc. But not everything can be shown with images.
But that is not the biggest problem with her character. No, that is reserved for the mysterious decision to make Bobbie into a fanatical war-monger at the beginning. I have been complaining about lack of proper representation for Mars in the first season, and so was very happy to see Bobby in nr. 2. And it’s not like seeing her slowly change her approach when confronted with new facts was worthless. But it also made her into a very flat and irritating character for the first two thirds of the season.
It’s not like book!Bobbie goes through no character development after she sees Earth with her own eyes. It’s not like she’s not patriotic or proud to be a marine. But she can be all this and still retain some nuance, and some brain cells. The showrunners seem to have forgotten that. Bobbie on the show frequently comes off as a brat, something her book self never does.
There are other characters worth a mention, naturally. Fred Johnson is probably the most significant. His role was changed significantly as well, and much more tension withing the OPA was included. It adds to the problematic depiction of OPA as uncultured and wild space terrorists, but on the other hand it’s masterfully done. One can understand the sources of tension and where the different branches and wings are coming from. Much like with Errinwright, here again one is willing to forgive the problematic nature of the added material for a large part, because it forms such excellent additions.
In the end, the only thing I truly blame the second season for is the assassination of Bobbie’s character. While changes to Chrisjen upset me, they were compensated for by the excellent quality of Errinwright’s subplot. Yes, it is telling that the two female protagonists were undercut by the adaptation, making them look less smart than they are in the source material. But Chrisjen still comes out of it pretty impressive. The changes to Bobbie, on the other hand, are much more destructive, and they held no compensation, no hidden bonus. She is simply depicted as unlikable, to such an extent that even when we finally get legitimate reasons for sympathy, it’s long in coming.
Season 3 should fix that, and fast. Hopefully, Bobbie is here to stay. She shouldn’t have to carry the weird season 2 baggage with her throughout the show.
Images courtesy of SyFy
Stories and Space at Minas Morgul
No better place to talk about stories than in a chapter that is so concerned with them. I’ve been looking forward to the end of The Two Towers for months now. For that sweet spider action, of course. But also because it exemplifies so much of what makes The Lord of the Rings work. Stories work when they feel real. Measuring authenticity is tricky: you could cite emotionally-resonant character arcs, meticulous world-building, careful plotting, or even grittiness (but yuck, don’t). You could also cite contextuality: the ability to make scenes exist on more than a single level, the ability to make moments exist beyond themselves.
Making a moment work on multiple levels is just good storytelling. It’s economical, it’s precise. It also injects the story with a shot of reality: events, reactions, have ripples. Single moments, single decisions have weight that flow out to affect other concurrent events. A good story, a realistic story, has lots of small stories, small histories, small desires, that bang into each other in unexpected ways and add up to something more. That sense of context and ramifications help create a realistic world more than an airtight magic system even will. And it’s something that Tolkien does really well in “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol.” Buckle in, friends, we’ve got a long one ahead.
“The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” is basically a triptych. It opens with the arrival at Minas Morgul and the exodus of one Sauron’s armies. It centers on Frodo and Sam having a conversation about the nature of stories and their place within them. And it closes with Sméagol’s final assertion of himself and its accidental, incidental dismissal. Each one is very big and very small; each one deals with past and present. And they all affect each other.
Minas Morgul is one of the best set pieces in Lord of the Rings. It is ominous and oddly beautiful, on occasion feeling like a horror-inverse of Lothlórien (Frodo’s turn to the Phial of Galadriel, then, works doubly well). It is carpeted with luminous white flowers, “beautiful and yet horrible” like something from an “uneasy dream.” Like so much of the evil in Tolkien’s work, it’s something that’s been distorted, twisted, made wrong.
High on a rocky seat upon the black knees of Ephel Dúath stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about It, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.
It’s a very cool location on its own, and Tolkien is on his A-game in description. “Lit with light” should be a silly phrase (uh, yeah Tolkien, it was probably lit by light). But instead it takes on a sinister turn. It quickly becomes clear that whatever it’s lit by, it isn’t really light – it’s an odd, pale, “corpse-light.” Weak, but an inevitable, infectious cloud. It’s lit and not-lit, by a light that’s also a not-light.
But it’s also a locale that works on multiple levels. First and foremost, it’s a challenge and a threat to Frodo and Sam. It also works as a reintroduction to Sauron and Mordor, a thematic re-emphasis on their propensity to twist and deform in the absence of an ability to create. And then there’s the fact that Minas Morgul, while a threat to the hobbits, does not care or even know about them. They are entirely concerned with something else.
There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as of birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing… As the terrible cry ended, falling back through a long sickening wail to silence, Frodo slowly raised his head. Across the narrow valley, now almost on a level with his eyes, the walls of the evil city stood, and its cavernous gate, shaped like an open mouth with gleaming teeth, was gaping wide. And out of the gate an army came.
One of my favorite things about Minas Morgul in this scene is that it feels so much bigger than an obstacle for Frodo and Sam to squeeze past. While all of this is happening, an army spills out of the gate entirely unaware of them, off to fight a far-off battle. But it’s immediately emotionally resonant: because Frodo and Sam know the people whom the army is off to challenge, and because of the strong symbolic connections at play: the pale, twisted tower that had once been Minas Ithil is spewing out an army heading towards Minas Tirith. Stories are sliding by each other here. But it doesn’t make the narrative feel messy or overcrowded. It makes it feel vibrant, realistic, and fraught.
The Darkness of the East
Despite all of these overlaps, it would still be easy for “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” to feel hollow. There are neat confluences, sure, but that counts for little if it doesn’t mean anything. Through Frodo, though, this all becomes an intensely personal experience. Frodo’s been having a tough go throughout most of Book IV – the Ring has only gotten heavier upon approaching the mountains surrounding Mordor. But at Minas Morgul, for a moment, the terror of the place seems to push him temporarily over the edge.
Frodo felt his senses reeling and his mind darkening. Then suddenly, as if some force were at work other than his own will, he began to hurry, tottering forward, his groping hands held out, his head lolling from side to side.
It’s small moment in the grand scheme of the chapter, but it’s so unsettling. Frodo feels his mind dimming, and then he essentially gets hijacked. It’s a terrifying moment, as if his own self, the thing that makes him Frodo, suddenly winks out. It’s the scariest moment in a chapter filled with screeching monsters, alien lights, poisoned flowers and massive armies. The Morgul Vale, for a moment, erases Frodo. It’s such an important moment, a perfect encapsulation how Middle-earth at its best can be both vast and intimate.
The sheer size of everything, the weight of history, is very present in this moment, but all that really matters is whether Frodo can recover himself. Even once he feels himself again, he totters: “Other armies will come. I am too late,” he says to himself. “All is lost. I tarried on the way. All is lost. Even if my errand is performed, no one will ever know. There will be no one I can tell. It will all be in vain.” It’s not, but it almost feels like a meta-commentary: how Frodo is so small, so singular, in a world in which so much is happening. And Frodo manages to keep going by keeping his focus studiously narrow. “Whether Faramir or Aragorn or Elrond or Galadriel or Gandalf or anyone else ever knew about it,” he thinks, “was beside the purpose.”
He’s right and he’s wrong. It’s besides the purpose but it also is the purpose. Because for Tolkien the personal and political, internal and external, are inextricably wrapped up in each other. Scale, to a certain extent, doesn’t matter. Armies march, cities come under siege, people make decisions without anyone to see. They can’t be separated – a philosophy only underlined by the fact that as Frodo grasps Galadriel’s phial, Lothlórien itself is coming under attack, and is ultimately saved by Frodo’s ability to keep a hold on himself and turn away the Witch-King’s attention.
Stories and Tales
The middle section of “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” is one of the sections of The Lord of the Rings that I remember reading as a kid with the most clarity. It felt Very Important to me when I was twelve.
“Beren, now, he never thought that he was going to get the Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on.”
“…Still I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’ And they’ll say: ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of hobbits, and that’s saying a lot!”
“It’s saying a lot too much,” said Frodo. “…But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stout-hearted. ‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his take, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?’”
“Now Mr. Frodo,” said Sam. “You shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.”
“So was I,” said Frodo. “And so I am.”
It’s such a lovely little moment between Frodo and Sam before everything goes quickly downhill. It also, once again, ties them to the bigger picture in time and space. Frodo’s turn to the Phial of Galadriel in the Morgul Vale doesn’t just tie the story to the concurrent attack on Lórien. It also ties Frodo to the broader history of the world for which he’s fighting. It’s personal and far-reaching, and such a kind, bright moment in a dark place.
It’s also a moment for Frodo to reflect on his experience. In his struggle in the Morgul Vale, he notes at one point that he feels as if he “looked on some old story far away.” In that context, it was a largely negative thing: he felt powerless, stripped of himself, as if watching someone else act for him. Here, though, stories – and the ability to distance oneself from a distressing present – can bring comfort. It’s a nice parallel between the beginning and middle of the chapter, and once again places a clear emphasis on Tolkien’s focus on choice and intention. Which brings us to the last section of the chapter.
Gollum and Sméagol
Gollum’s story has been a sad one since the start. He’s been brutalized and traumatized, he’s a tragedy and a genuine threat. He’s spent most of The Two Towers veering back and forth between his two potential selves, toying with each outcome but ultimately still walking a middle path between the two. He was both Sméagol and Gollum, though often more one than the other at any given time. And at the end of “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” Sméagol asserts himself as strongly as he ever has.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old, weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and stream of youth.
It’s a moment that’s as hopeful as Sméagol’s story could get at this point. A sad, weary old hobbit who is very lonely, but also one that would have the potential of finding some peace. But it doesn’t last. Sméagol startles the hobbits awake, Sam yells at him, and “the fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.” It’d be easy to place the blame on Sam. And to suggest that if he had been kinder, perhaps Sméagol could have regained more ground. But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. At this point Gollum / Sméagol is an accumulation of failures, tragedies, moments of happiness and success. Just like anyone would be. He was teetering and then tipped too far. It’s not Sam’s fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just something that happened, and it’s very sad.
It’s a dark bookend on a chapter that had quite a bit of brightness in the middle. Stories have their power, and there are always choices and differing outcomes – but sometimes that’s not enough. It’s a sad moment, and a reality in Tolkien’s world. But it’s not the only outcome. After some spider adventures in Shelob’s lair, after all, we’ll get to the choices of Master Samwise.
- I went to an art history talk last week that discussed Islamic paintings under Mongol rule. This was one of the paintings, and the scholar made a joke about the, ermm, geological implausibility of the mountains. I couldn’t stop laughing because they are Mordor mountains.
- I’m really fond of Frodo’s moment of panic near Minas Morgul. It’s a very identifiable moment in which a dutiful character carrying an impossibly heavily burden finally slides down the slippery slope to worst-case-scenario thinking.
- Frodo’s ability to hold onto himself is, of course, bittersweet. He’s able to keep going, but the cracks forming in him are already visible. When he mentally chooses not to put on the Ring, he reasoning is based heavily on the fact that he’s not strong enough to challenge the Witch King – “not yet.”
- Prose Prize: High on a rocky seat upon the black knees of Ephel Dúath stood the walls and tower of Minas Morgul. All was dark about It, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. It’s so good! So good. There’s the “lit with light” / “hollow of the hills” in the middle and the sense of build – the second and third sentence have three main clauses, balancing each other, and then the last had a fourth, giving it that extra sense of momentum, like it’s spilling over. Just the best.
- Tolkien’s Wanton Cruelty to Innocent Punctuation Marks (sponsored by Mytly): I didn’t notice anything this time! Am I becoming desensitized to punctuation cruelty? I don’t blink at anything less than four semicolons and six em-dashes anymore.
- Contemporary to this chapter: Denethor sends Faramir to Osgiliath. Armies attack both Rohan and Lothlórien. Aragorn takes his sweet time meandering around with the Army of the Dead. Things are escalating quickly
All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) courtesy of New Line Cinema. The rest of the images, in order of appearance, are from erzsebet-beast, Ted Nasmith, Lorenzo Daniele, and Anne Olga Vea.