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.