Saturday, January 31, 2015

Anne C. Petty and Tolkien's Heroes: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXXIII

This is the second in a series of posts on Anne C. Petty's Tolkien in the Land of Heroes.  The prior post can be found here.

I'm just about finished with Anne C. Petty's Tolkien in the Land of Heroes and I wanted to add some (perhaps) final thoughts to my previous post.  The overall news is that Petty does not disappoint.  Her "big picture" approach allows her to refine the work of previous scholars in ways that suggest fruitful new approaches to Tolkien's material.  In particular, while she sees conflicting elements in Tolkien's thought, Petty stresses unity where so many prominent authors stress tension and contradiction.  This comes out in the passages where Petty deals with Tolkien's view of Evil and in her discussions of the Pagan and Christian roots of Tolkien's mythos.  My fears that the author would try to subordinate J.R.R. Tolkien's works to the level of mere illustrations for Campbell's theories (As I feel Flieger does with Tolkien and Barfield) proved to be unfounded.  Where Campbell does appear, he is employed tastefully and in equal weight with other critics like Northrop Frye.  Indeed, Petty's use of Campell and Frye to set up a grid for analyzing Tolkien's heroes was particularly useful.  All in all, I found Tolkien in the Land of Heroes to be an enjoyable and useful book.  It wasn't earth-shattering, and I certainly have my quibbles, but it does what it sets out to do: provide a framework for organizing the vast amount of thought on Tolkien's legendarium so that as Petty says "we don't miss the forest for the Mallorns".

Monday, January 19, 2015

Clariel Doodle: Creative Platypus

Because it needed to happen:

Fun With Pencils: Creative Platypus

Two concept sketches for a novel-in-planning:

Anne C. Petty and Tolkien's View of Evil: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXXII

My mind and my conversation tend to move down certain set grooves which become irksomely apparent once you get to know me.  Several of my friends once suggested turning any conversation at which I was present into a Bingo game with squares labeled "Connecticut," "Cthulhu," "Tolkien," "Tennyson," and "That one time we were playing Exalted when...".  It's a pretty fair observation.  In that spirit then, I'd like to take up one of my perennial topics: the thought and fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I'm currently about half way through a book by a Tolkien scholar I hadn't previously encountered, Anne C. Petty.  The book is Tolkien in the Land of Heroes.  As Tolkien criticism goes, it's a fairly typical work which admittedly seeks to look only at "the big picture" of Tolkien's general themes in the "big three" (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion).  Where I have felt so far that Petty has moved the ball forward is in handling Tolkien's view of Evil.  Petty is plainly in dialog with big guns on this topic Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey.  I think, however, that she combines and refines the work of each of these authors by adding categories to their thought (such as "Sacred" and "Secular" embodiments of Evil as well as honing in on "External" versus "Internal" forms of Power) and attempting a more faithful interaction with the orthodox aspects of Tolkien's Roman Catholicism (though here she still lacks the nuance of the late Stratford Caldecott).  Petty's commitment to the writings of Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) is a little off-putting for me, but I haven't seen that skewing her analysis so far in the book and in the case of Tolkien's attitude toward Evil it encourages her to take a comparative view that is broader than that of other authors I have encountered (as evidenced by her examination of the role of Satan in the Christian Scriptures and her cross-referencing of it with evil as presented in Northern Literature without immediately throwing the two into opposition).  While Petty's analysis is admittedly truncated given the purpose of her book (the "Big Picture"), I do think that so far it nicely avoids Flieger's temptation to read Tolkien through the lens of her commitment to another thinker (Barfield for Flieger, Campbell for Petty) to the point of making Tolkien subservient to that thinker and Shippey's tendency to try and divide Tolkien's thinking into "orthodox" and "pagan" spheres and stress the tension between them (especially where Tolkien would have ardently stresses unity or denied the allocation of a particular idea to a particular category).  I will be curious to see if these improvements continue all the way to the end, especially in the case of Petty's devotion to Campbell.

That said, has anyone else out there read Tolkien in the Land of Heroes and would be willing to share their thoughts?  I know we have some Mythguard fans out there who might be a little more up on the current state of the field than I am.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure (Cont.): The Platypus Reads CCLXXXI

A new semester has started at school and I have finished Nix's Clariel.  As a reminder, my purpose in reading this book is to see how Garth Nix is able to craft a compelling novel with a heroine who consistently does everything she can to avoid the Call of Adventure.  Prior entries in the series can be found here, here, and here.

*Plot Relevant Material Discussed Ahead*

17. By adding Mogget to the mix, Nix finally presents us with a character who can beat Clariel at her own game.  As an incredibly powerful Free Magic creature who has been humiliatingly bound to serve its enemies, Mogget's grievances are deeper and his determination stronger than Clariel's.  As Mogget's plot unfolds, we are able to see the real consequences of Clariel's approach to life: this is what she is becoming, a harmless-looking but incredibly dangerous villain.

18. All story thrives on conflict.  One of the things that makes Clariel work as a novel is that Clariel's opposition to the "call to adventure" plays out in such a way that it generates conflict(man versus man or man versus fate?) and thus story.  Clariel may consistently choose to do wrong, but she does in fact choose to do something and that moves the story along, even if it's in a tragic direction.  The most important example of this is Clariel's scheme to rescue Aunt Lemmin using three Free Magic creatures and a Necromancer's sword, which makes the book a near-tragedy.

19. One of the nice ironies that underlies Clariel and keeps the story at a certain level of sophistication(and thus interest) is that Clariel assumes that everyone is like her: shirking their duties and endeavoring to live only for their own pleasure.  Even as her own justice intuitions force her to turn aside from going to the Forest, she assumes that no one else is capable or willing to make the same sacrifice she is making.  This lack of self-irony reaches its peak when Clariel willingly binds the Free Magic creatures, denying them their autonomy and freedom, to serve her needs.

20. Characters need to grow to be compelling.  When Clariel loses her access to the Charter, she realizes for the first time that her actions have consequences, that she might be and have always been responsible for her own destiny.  She doesn't have enough time to process this realization until the penultimate moment when she chooses to sacrifice her life to stop Mogget's plot.  This elventh-hour turn, much like Prince Hamlet's, transforms Clariel from Villain back to tragic hero.  This sense of completion, even though there is still an aura of doom that hangs over the epilogue, gives the novel a satisfying conclusion by allowing us to see Clariel grow up and perhaps earn a little of our respect.  Tragedies thrive on taking noble characters and watching them go bad (i.e. MacBeth).  Clariel isn't a noble Character, so if she hadn't redeemed herself, it would be hard to accept the novel as her tragedy, and not a tragedy for all of the likable side-characters and the kingdom.  In that case, Bel would be the real hero of the story.  In some ways, he still is.  Nix is wise not to let us see too much of Bel, since his increasingly noble character would quickly draw the reader's interest away from Clariel.

So there you have it: twenty ways I was able to identify that Garth Nix makes Clariel work in spite of its unlikely and often(though not always) unlikable heroine.  The read itself was enjoyable, though the story flailed for a bit once Clariel left Belisaere.  It's piqued my interest enough to want to pick up the entire Abhorsen Trilogy at some point.  When I do, expect to see my thoughts and reactions posted here at The Platypus of Truth.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure (Cont.): The Platypus Reads CCLXXX

My strategic reading of Garth Nix's Clariel, the prequel to his bestselling Abhorsen Trilogy, is nearing the end.  My purpose in this particular reading is to discover the ways in which Nix makes his reluctant and less-than-likable title character compelling.  To that end, this post and its predecessors contain discussions of numerous plot points.  Those who have not read Clariel may not wish to continue reading this post.

*Discussion of Plot Material Ahead*

If your still with me, today's post will move my analysis up to the end of chapter twenty-two (Clariel's first meeting with her grandfather).  The two previous posts can be found here and here.  My previous post ran to the end of chapter nineteen (Clariel's escape from the prison hole).

14. Once Clariel is out of Belisaere, the narrative loses some strength until her arrival at Hillfair.  The reason for this is that it presents Clariel with her first real opportunity to get away.  By now, Clariel constant chime of "the Forest, the Forest, the Forest" is getting more than a little wearisome.  Has she really failed to grow after all that she's experienced?  The answer is only a partial "yes".  Nix allows Clariel to run away, but has her reject taking Aziminil with her and forces her to return quickly with the authorialy thin excuse of saving Bel from Dingos in a cultivated area (nota bene: the only wild dogs I am familiar with are coyotes, so maybe this is a much, much more likely scenerio in Nix's native Australia).  Nix attempts to save this wobbly passage in three ways.  First, he gives Clariel the real choice to leave Aziminil behind and thus demonstrating one self-imposed limit to her desire to go back to the Forest.  The second is her contrived for the author but real for the character choice not to abandon Bel to the wild dogs.  This sets a second significant limit on Clariel's desire to go back to the Forest.  The third is that Nix offers us a concrete insight into Clariel's desire for independence: she doesn't want to become "one of those girls".  The first two points bind Clariel to the action of the story in ways that are rooted in her character as opposed to her circumstances (she hasn't read Sartre yet, evidently).  The third point helps to further humanize Clariel by making her choices increasingly intelligible to the reader.  In doing so, Clariel becomes less of a proxy for the reader to experience Nix's imagined world and more of a distinct character within her own right.  The fact that this process is still barely getting underway some 230 pages into the book is a gutsy authorial decision.

15. As Clariel arrives at Hillfair, we find her being bound further by human obligations.  Nix has Clariel affirm her need to have friends like Bel; a big step for her.  Though Clariel hasn't seen it yet, she has far more in common in terms of temperament and interest with her extended family than she did with her nuclear family (a nice bit of writing on Nix's part).  By meeting her mother's kin, Clariel is also forced to continue her reevaluation of her mother, thus deepening our understanding of Clariel and her family while also while also offering opportunities for Clariel to grow as a character.  The end product of this is to begin to strengthen Clariel's revenge motive and drag her further toward the "call to adventure".

16. This leads us to one of the real tricks that Nix uses to make Clariel work.  When we meet Tyriel, Clariel's grandfather, we discover him to be a much more complex and capable man than we've been led to believe.  As with Meyer's Bella Swan (yes, I went there), the real trick to getting readers to invest in novels with "thin" or "unlikable" main characters is to allow the reader to use the main character as a way to access the "world" until such time as the protagonist has had enough experiences to grow into a complex character while covering the protagonist's "thin" or "unlikable" period(whether that's a portion of the story or the entire story) by surrounding them with plenty of compelling secondary characters and interesting locations.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review: The Platypus of Truth

And lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age.

Today is the last day of 2014.  The big news of 2014 is that Western Culture has survived one-hundred years after the onset of the Great War.  The world is changed.  At least somewhat.  But in the shadow of that great anniversary, many other things have happened.  Here at the Platypus of Truth, it's been a pleasant, but low-volume year.  That may be due to the fact that 2014 was the first summer in some time that I didn't attempt any live-blog read-throughs.  Those raise the number of posts per year like nobody's business.  Instead, 2014 saw an uptick in poetic compositions and a continuation of 2013's travel-blogging.  That makes 2014 the year of memory and reflection at Platypus of Truth and that seems appropriate a hundred years after the end of one of the most astounding eras in Western history.  What will next year bring?  I don't know.  There will certainly be more about Clariel and Nix's attempts to sell a reluctant hero.  Then there's still plenty of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber on my shelf waiting to be read.  Having to buy a car has put a big dent in travel funds, so we'll see if that goes on hold for a bit.  Poems seem to come and go as they please.  The future is always uncertain, but what is certain is that if I'm still alive and kicking I'll be eager to share my thoughts with you here at Platypus of Truth.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIX

My strategic reading of Garth Nix's Clariel continues.  My goal with this reading is to find out how Nix creates an interesting novel with a heroine who persistently refuses the "call to adventure".  To this end, I've been taking notes as I read and sharing them here.  Those who have not read Clariel may not wish to continue reading as I do mention major plot points in my remarks.

*Dr. Song Says: Spoilers!*

The last post ended with Clariel's first lesson at the house of Magister Kargrin.  This post will run to the end of chapter nineteen or Clariel's escape from the prison hole.

7. A reluctant hero often draws the wrong conclusion from valuable information since their focus is in the wrong place.  Nix manages to use Clariel's wrong conclusions in a way that still keeps her headed toward the "the call to adventure".  She consistently fails to realize that the threats posed by Kilp and Aziminil threaten any chance she has of living as a boarderer and will continue posing such threats until they are completely wiped out.  Even then, it may not be possible for Clariel to ever become a boarderer.  While Clariel fails to fully realize these things until it's almost too late, her determination to use Kargrin and the others to get what she wants ends up pushing her in the right direction without violating Clariel's character as Nix has constructed it.

8. If the hero recognizes a similarity or link between themselves and the villain, then this will be a powerful inducement to take up the call.  In Clariel, this link paradoxically means that Clariel by agreeing to confront the villain is one step closet to getting what she wants since after the confrontation produces a link between the two she must be evacuated from Belisaere before Aziminil can find her.

9.  Nix uses small "wins," such as finding the colorful fish in Aziminil's hut, to keep the reader feeling that positive gains are being made in the story even when things seem to be going all wrong.

10. It's interesting that Clariel doesn't show any sentiments associated with actual people (in this case, to her parents) until page 148.  That's a long time for a character to remain unconnected to teh characters around them.  When we finally do see Clariel show some sentiment, however, it's much more powerful and just a little show of affection goes a long way toward making her a more sympathetic character.

11. Much of the middle section of the book seems to be about Clariel learning to find strength in her extended family to make up for the weakness of her nuclear family.  Clariel becomes more human as she realizes that she is not alone and others share her pressures and problems and are willing to help (i.e. Bel, Gully, and Kargrin).  This also begins to turn her toward taking up "the call to adventure," but her interaction with Aziminil taints this desire and keeps up the tension.  Even Hamlet has to take up the "call to adventure" by Act V.  A reluctant hero cannot always be reluctant.  Keeping the reader's interest in a reluctant hero is one problem, but negotiating the hero's transformation from reluctant hero to hero is another.  Nix seems to be coming at that transformation is small steps so that when it happens (even if it's a day late and a dollar short) the transformation is believable in terms of the character, her journey, and her world.

12. Throwing characters at a reluctant hero is a great way to railroad them into taking up the call.  This is because it's very hard for anyone to avoid forming any positive relationship at all with anyone around them.  At some point, the hero is going to feel obligated by some sort of relationship with someone to do something.  As long as that someone is tied in to the main plot, you have a motive for Prince Hamlet to act.  Nix uses the Academy as a way to force Clariel to develop the relationships (however tenuous) that will ultimately force her into action.  Even her meeting with Aronzo, who she has reason to hate, help drag her in to the main plot.

13. Kill off some characters.  Nix does a good job of misdirecting the reader from the fact that he's about to kill off Clariel's family.  The suddenness and injustice of their deaths, gives Clariel a wonderful vengeance motive and also allows her to realize that she cared about them far more than she thought.  This has the duel effect of continuing Clariel's humanization process and also giving her another personal investment in defeating Kilp and restoring order to Belisaere.  The final effect of this is that by page 227, Nix has foreced Clariel to accept the "call to adventure" and made her feel that she no longer deserves to go back to the forest.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVIII

I'm about one-hundred pages in to Garth Nix's YA novel Clariel.  One purpose I have in reading this book is to discover how Nix gets us to invest in a story with a gruff and unlikable heroine who consistently resists the call to adventure.  That's a tall order for any author, but Garth Nix seems to have pulled it off.  So here I am, pen in hand, taking notes on how he does it.  Since it looks like I'll have quite the page of notes by the time I finish Clariel, I've decided to share my thoughts in several installments.  What follows takes us through the first one-hundred pages, or right up to her first lesson in Charter Magic.  If you haven't read the book yet, you may not want to continue reading.

1. To make an "unsympathetic character" "sympathetic", establish what they love and what their goal is early on.  Give them something they want that the audience can sympathize with.  For Clariel, it's a desire to go back to the Forest and be a Boarder.  Within just a few pages, Nix makes sure that we know what Clariel loves, hates, and wants.

2. In order to hook the reader and help them through their initial distaste for the main character, use a prologue that introduces the threat.  This shows us what the cost will be if the main character refuses the "call to adventure".  In the case of Clariel, we start off with a Free Magic creature possessing an old junk collector.  We don't hear about it again until around page ninety-nine, but the knowledge that it's out there adds an undercurrent of urgency to all of Clariel's sturm und drang.

3. A character like Clariel can make up for being gruff and angsty by demonstrating exceptional competence in one area (in Clariel's case, her wood-lore and survival skills).  They need not be competent in other important areas, but if they are not weak, then we can at least respect them and maintain our interest.

4. In order for the character to remain an "unwilling hero" and not simply become "wishy-washy", they must remain ardently focused on achieving their own goals (back to the forest, back to the forest, back to the forest).  This gives them an understandable reason for resisting the "call to adventure".  They cannot resist the call permanently and still have much of a story, so at some point they will need to try and wrench the "call to adventure" to their own purposes.  For Clariel, this seems to be a matter of "I do this and I get to go back to the forest".

5. Following point four, it is important that something from the world of the "call to adventure" threaten the hero's own goals early on.  This keeps the hero engaged with the "call to adventure" even while in the midst of trying to refuse it.  In Clariel's case, this comes when Mistress Ader tells her that unless the king resumes control of the kingdom, the Boarders will be disbanded.

6. Give the character friends and allies that are maximally invested in the "call to adventure" and who can help the hero see how it applies to the hero's own goals.  Let them help the hero remove an obstacle to the hero's personal goals while at the same time pushing them to accept the "call to adventure".  For Clariel, this process begins at the Academy where she is introduced to the conspirators who are seeking to block Governor Kilp and destroy the Free Magic creature that is using him to gain power.