Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Household Stories

Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm
collected by Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm
English translation by Lucy Crane
Published in 1886

I'm taking the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World on Coursera, taught by University of Michigan professor Eric Rabkin. The first assigned reading is the Lucy Crane translation of the classic stories collected by the Brothers Grimm.

These stories, written in a Victorian-era translation that predates Disney and all other aspects of twentieth-century popular culture, are essential cultural literacy for anyone curious about the origins of modern fantastical literature.

Most of these stories are very weirdly off-putting because they don't quite follow the structural rules that underlie most modern fiction. These structural rules are so fundamental that I didn't even really appreciate that they existed until a few years back when I read Tales Before Tolkien, a collection of fantasy fiction which inspired J. R. R. Tolkien. Most of the stories contained therein were written in the 19th century, but many were based on far older material that predated the codification of what we think of as modern fiction, so they retained pacing and plot structures that seemed exceedingly odd to my brain.

This is also evident in Household Stories, which tells me that Lucy Crane was probably very faithful to the very old source material (otherwise the stories would likely have struck me as more modern). Possibly the strangest story is 'Mr. Korbes', in which a cock and a hen go to pay a visit to Mr. Korbes. Along the way they are joined by a variety of animals and sentient versions of inanimate objects. When the motley bunch reach Mr. Korbes' house, they beat him to death. No reason is given.

In another story, 'The Dog and the Sparrow', a dog and a sparrow are friends until the dog is run over and killed by a man driving a cart. The sparrow then takes revenge, methodically destroying first the man's livelihood, then his house, then taking his life. The latter two-thirds of the story are nothing but the sparrow's cold-blooded violence described in gruesome detail.

Some assorted other thoughts:

  • Inanimate objects seem to gain and lose sentience rather arbitrarily. You know how the dish ran away with the spoon, back around the time of the cow-jumping-over-the-moon incident? Yeah, that sort of thing happens a lot here. Yet an anthropomorphic needle that hitches a ride with a couple of chickens out for an evening ride in their carriage gets transmuted into an ordinary needle in the very next scene with no logic or explanation.
  • The world of the Brothers Grimm is profuse with kings and queens. It seems like every few miles down the road a traveler would come across another castle with a whole different king and queen in residence. This is awfully convenient for storytelling. That said, just look at a map of Germany from any era after the Dark Ages and prior to the 19th century, and you'll see that the great profusion of monarchs might not be that far from reality.
  • There are evil stepmothers aplenty in these stories. I can't remember any evil stepfathers. (There are stepfathers, but they tend to be inoffensive sorts who fade into the background.) There's got to be some cultural factor at play here.
  • Everything you ever heard about the violence of pre-Disney fairy tales is entirely true. In 'Aschenputtel', the Grimm Brothers' version of Cinderella, one of the Evil Stepsisters chops her own big toe off to fit into the discarded shoe. My own favorite scene of horror is probably the one in 'The Almond Tree', in which an Evil Stepmother tears her stepson's head off by slamming the lid of a chest on it. Then she loosely reattaches the severed head, props the body up at the table, and gets her biological daughter to smack him in the face, making her think she's accidentally decapitated her half-brother. Then the stepmother cooks and serves him to her husband.
Overall,  I enjoyed the collection. These are stories that survived as folklore for centuries before being collected for posterity by the Grimms. They are very different creatures than modern fiction, but they represent a literary tradition that's been folded into modern fantastical literature.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings
by George R. R. Martin
Published in 1998
Published by Bantam Spectra
ISBN: 0-553-57990-8

Once upon a time, a man named George R. R. Martin decided to try and write epic fantasy without even a whiff of sex or violence. And so I continue my read of Song of Ice and Fire.

Spoilers below!

Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are dead. The deservedly unpopular King Joffrey is attempting to rule Westeros from King's Landing. Robert's brothers Stannis Baratheon and Renly Baratheon have each proclaimed themselves king; Stannis's claim is that he is the rightful heir, and Renly's claim is who wants a boring, dour man like Stannis as king, anyway? Ned Stark's son Robb has effectively declared the northern half of Westeros independent and styles himself as the King in the North. And Balon Greyjoy has declared himself King of his own little archipelago; he's not powerful enough to rule Westeros, but he does have sufficient military might to make things very difficult for Robb Stark and company.

With all the killing, looting, pillaging, and slaughter going on in Westeros, who has time to notice a little trouble brewing in the far north? Or take notice of the last heir to the previous dynasty as she raises some adorable pets off on another continent?

I have to point out this is the story of a poor country locked in a chaotic civil war in which the combatants do not clearly fall into two easy-to-grasp opposing camps, and loyalties hinge on complex and convoluted histories that a newcomer would find difficult to follow. In other words, this is exactly the type of conflict that is supposed to be difficult for Westerners to understand when it happens in Africa or the Caucasus. And yet not only is Song of Ice and Fire a huge hit among readers, but the TV series Game of Thrones attracts loads of viewers who haven't read a big fat book since graduating from high school. There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

Basically this is the story of political chaos. Westeros is constantly referred to as the "Seven Kingdoms", but I have to admit I don't have the faintest idea what the seven kingdoms are. The political units that factor into this story aren't geographical areas which can be demarcated by lines on a map; they are rival dynasties whose hold on swathes of land and local populations is inevitably tenuous and temporary. People don't have nationalities; they have allegiances. (This, by the way, is how geopolitics worked pretty much everywhere in the real world until relatively recently.)

Political chaos is horrific to live through, but it makes for some fascinating reading. I devoured A Clash of Kings in about a week.

Here are some disconnected random thoughts, in alphabetical order by name of the most prominent character therein:

  • I mentioned the all-encompassing importance of bloodlines back when I discussed A Game of Thrones. Here, I was reminded again that while the little people might fight and die in this war, it's really the upper classes that truly matter. Every viewpoint character comes from the nobility (except Davos, who was born a commoner and elevated to the upper classes) and while there are a couple of commoner characters who get decent character development, they only matter insofar as they are important to the highborn viewpoint characters.
  • I couldn't have been the only one absolutely astonished that Joffrey made it to the end of the second book alive. He's in a very precarious situation and too stupid to realize it. That said, he's one of the few villains I can think of who can be annoying and incompetent without having the narrative suffer because of it. He's being propped up by competent people but still has enough power to do real damage when he feels like it -- as Ned Stark would attest if his head were still attached. 
  • Melisandre is creepy. (I don't expect to hear much in the way of disagreement.) She's also the first actual wizard to appear in this series. Prior to Melisandre's grand entrance, overt fantasy elements had been very muted in the series, appearing only in the form of ice zombies (or whatever they're called) and a couple of baby dragons. (I'm not convinced Mirri Maz Duur from the first book/season actually did anything a traditional faith healer from a real-world premodern culture couldn't have done.) The introduction of a character using actual unmistakable magic is slightly jarring. It doesn't help that as a magical assassin, Melisandre is carrying out her assassinations by just about the most stomach-churningly weird method imaginable.
  • You can say that there are few moral absolutes and many shades of gray in Martin's characters, but it sure seems that anyone with Ned Stark DNA in their blood is pretty much an unambiguous good guy. (The following books may well prove me wrong. Maybe Rickon is destined for evil.)
  • Sansa Stark annoyed the heck out of me for most of the first book. She was a prissy princess type and not terribly self-aware about it. That changed near the end of A Game of Thrones, when she could only look at the situation she was in and think, Well, being a delicate princess has worked out really goddamned well for me, hasn't it? I respected her in A Clash of Kings, which shows how good Martin is at character development.
  • Theon is truly a world-class idiot, and faking Bran and Rickon's deaths proves it. I understand how it was meant to help him in the short term, but because he had no idea where Bran and Rickon were or what they were up to, he had no way of knowing they wouldn't just pop up alive after he put their alleged severed heads on display, causing him to be laughed out of Winterfell. As it happened, it was pure luck that they didn't resurface until after Theon's world came crashing down around him. It's a testament to George R. R. Martin's writing skill that I do not believe he had Theon do this simply as a dumb plot device to make Catelyn and everyone else believe B + R had been killed, because this level of stupidity is totally in character for this dunderhead as he's been written. I've been reading and enjoying Leigh Butler's reactions as she reads the book for the first time, and she sums up Theon nicelyThe sheer level of havoc Theon has managed to wreak just through incompetence, arrogance and insecure panic is staggering. It would almost be funny if it weren’t for the appalling collateral damage that has resulted. Seriously, it’s like reading a comedy of errors written by Charles Manson.

I haven't seen the TV series, although I've read up on it online, including all the debates about how the series deals with sex, the narrative changes from the book, and so on. I've seen a couple of scenes on YouTube, and for the most part they're done quite well. Here's Ned Stark's death as shown on TV -- I can't find any fault with how it plays out.

I can't fault many of the changes in the narrative as A Clash of Kings was adapted to the screen. In the book, Robb Stark shows up for a couple of scenes early on before disappearing 'off-screen' for the remainder, which is fine in a book but an absolute no-no in a TV show. And Jaime Lannister spends literally the entire book chained up in Robb Stark's dungeon, which again doesn't play well on television. Some changes were inevitable. And some things that aren't in the books, such as scenes between Arya Stark and Lord Tywin, strike me as such a good idea that Martin must be kicking himself for not writing them into ACOK in the first place.

But something I kept noticing was the ever-present TV makeover of ugly people. I came across this image linked to by TVTropes:

But that's not all. There's Dagmer Cleftjaw, so called in the books because he's got a massive battle scar that splits his face in half. On TV he looks like this:

But the crowning achievement in TV makeovers must be the one given to Tyrion Lannister, who in the books is hideously ugly. Martin reminds us of this every chance he gets.  And this is before he gets a massive facial scar at the end of A Clash of Kings that puts him into "Phantom of the Opera" territory.

Here's what Tyrion looks like on TV, and therefore in the minds of the vast majority of people who recognize the name "Tyrion Lannister" at all:

So, uh, yeah. I'm not trying to bash the TV series or actor Peter Dinklage. I'm just pointing out that those TV makeup people can really work wonders.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Wild Sheep Chase

A Wild Sheep Chase
by Haruki Murakami
English translation by Alfred Birnbaum
Published in 1989.
Published by Kodansha International Ltd.
ISBN (Vintage International Edition): 0-375-71894-X

Our nameless protagonist works at an advertising agency in Tokyo. His wife has just left him, and now he is dating a young woman with stunningly perfect ears. One day he designs an ad campaign that utilizes a seemingly innocent picture of some sheep at a ranch in Hokkaido. He had received this picture from an estranged friend of his, called the Rat. This picture sets the book's main plot in motion.

Things get very, very weird.

A Wild Sheep Chase is my second Murakami, after Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (which he wrote later). I didn't realize it at the time, but AWSC is the final entry in a trilogy  of which the first two volumes never became well-known outside of Japan. Reading Wikipedia I feel Murakami enthusiasts consider AWSC a bridge between Murakami's early work and his later, more well-known period.

As the plot of AWSC is entirely self-contained, you can read it without ever bothering with the rest of what is apparently known as the Trilogy of the Rat. (The fact that it was written as Part 3 of 3 might explain some narrative oddities, like the subplot involving the dead girl that is dropped early on and never mentioned again.) All one needs to know is that there's an entire history out there involving the protagonist, the Rat, and the bartender J, and everything else becomes clear in the novel.

Or not so clear, as the case may be. AWSC contains some fine Murakami surrealism, and it's often not entirely clear what is happening. At least I'm sure the plot will appear simple and straightforward if I just type it out in simple sentences:

Hero works for ad agency in Tokyo. One day the representative of a reclusive right-wing political figure comes to the office. The photo of some sheep grazing that the hero innocently inserted into an ad is of very grave concern to the shadowy organization that the mysterious man represents. Particularly that one sheep, with the star-shaped mark. The man commands our hero to leave his job, provides him with a large stipend, and tasks him to track down the sheep, else the hero's life will be made HORRIBLY DIFFICULT. All the hero has to go on is that his friend the Rat sent him the picture. Fortunately his magical-eared girlfriend is willing to come along to help.

There, that's marvelously straightforward, isn't it? And it continues to be thus as Murakami's hero progresses toward his goal: the sheep, in whatever form it may exist in.