Monthly Archives: July 2011

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part Five: Retread

This is the Iron Council? This motley aggregation of pure democracy and metaphoric metal life? How disappointing.  Perhaps Mieville was on to something when he did not show the Scar.

The Iron Council is at its root a better metaphor, a better symbol, and a better myth than a reality. This is what utopian socialism equates to: a hard and harsh life, though free. Ann-Hari, the mother of the revolution, become uglied and weathered by that revolution. Transcending the revolution, the loss of her looks, reveals her true power, what draws people to her.

The physical transformation of the Perpetual Train into Iron Council is really interesting. The feral description is very apt. The totemic skulls, the creation of a face from the grill is both inspiring and frightening. The creation of a moving, railed city with its regular trek is an achievement.

But, as Cutter points out, there is a feudal air about Iron Council as well. Is the train not a roaming manor? A castle on the rails?  The communities that exist along the track have as much peasantry as proletariat. But the community itself, the majority decision of the people, is the “lord” of this independent fief.

During the course of this section, I agreed with Cutter’s critique of Iron Council. The lack of money, the feudal throwback, etc. I remember reading LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and absolutely detesting Anares (although Urras is little better). Despite my similar politics, I still find a lot of “socialist” literature uninteresting.

Which is why I find Cutter’s self condemnation problematic. What could be an interesting exploration of why Cutter believes what he does is subsumed by the narrator telling that he knows that he himself is wrong.

Moving on to the War, I find it interesting that, in this section, the war seems to be going more in New Crobuzon’s direction. Is the Witchocracy a party to the war? I think it is mentioned earlier in the novel that the Witchocracy and Tesh are allies or closely connected. But it has been a few hundred pages.

What annoys me is that instead of using the broken thassalomach spell to attack its enemies, New Crobuzon is sending an expeditionary force to wipe out Iron Council. Really, does New Crobuzon not have bigger fish to fry at the moment?

But, this section does accomplish its goal, to speed the Iron Council on its way to its final confrontation with New Crobuzon. The Iron Council is going home. First, though, there is the Cacotopic Stain. . .

Next time: Goodbye Eliza Stem-Fulcher in “The Caucus Race.”

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Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part 4: The Hainting

We leave the history of Judah Low and the Perpetual Train/ Iron Council behind and return to the New Crobuzon of the present. “The Hainting” is incredibly short and serves mostly to build up tension as the Tesh begin making their moves against New Crobuzon itself and the tensions within the city begin to ratchet up towards a spectacular explosion. And it is a further exploration of Ori’s partly delusional, partly gang mentality.

Part of the interest of Ori’s point of view is his increasing isolation from everything else save  his life in Toro’s Gang. He has completely identified himself with the group and no longer can see what is going on outside of that group. It is clear that his complaints about the Caucus not doing anything is increasingly wrong, but he does not see that. The power of agency is slowly shifting from Toro and her gang to a more organized rebellion. It is what Ori wants, and he refuses to see it. Iron Council is coming, and so is the revolution.

But, Toro and her gang are planning something big. Obviously, given the language used, they are targeting the Mayor for assassination. This will destabilize New Crobuzon aplenty. So, does the agency really change or is it more shared, but Ori is too blind, or self involved, to see it.

That Ori is truly self involved is beyond question. He has quickly (too quickly if you ask me) positioned himself as a key member of the gang, largely due to his monetary contributions (donated by Spiral Jacobs, how does that crazy old man have that much money?). It is he who recruits the angry and disaffected Baron to the gang, a man who brings fear to his fellow gang members. Baron is Militia, a hardcore soldier who can kill without remorse, with his eyes open. This raises plenty of questions about Toro’s Gang as all of them have trouble killing, even Militia informants. Is Toro’s Gang as hardcore, as ruthless as they seem to be?

Speaking of Baron, it seems that the war may be going in Tesh’s favor, or at least a stalemate. I still think that Tesh is at the disadvantage, at least at first. The fighting is taking place far closer to Tesh than to New Crobuzon. But, Tesh’s fighting techniques are truly frightening.

New Crobuzon uses a combination of traditional military technologies as well as steam punk science and thaumaturgy. New Crobuzon also uses techniques that the reader would easily recognize, the propaganda of freedom, liberation, and opposition to tyranny (Rudgutter makes the distinction in Perdido Street Station). Despite the strangeness, New Crobuzon is still a weird London.

Tesh is alien. Tesh’s weapons of war all seem to operate on more thaumaturgic principles. Toothbombs? really? Tesh has been described as having strange sciences and thaumaturgies compared to New Crobuzon. And Rudgutter has stated that Tesh is a land ruled by witches. Tesh also uses suicide bombers, using children imbued with hexes to attack the Militia. And then, there are some of the casualties, the Tesh are not nice.

The war is horrible, brutal, nasty, and utterly inhuman on both sides. So, why does the Caucus want New Crobuzon to lose? Well, the same reason that the Bolsheviks profited from Russia’s defeat in both the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. The Russian loss in 1905 severely weakened the power of the government, and World War I utterly obliterated the authority of the Romanovs, allowing the Bolsheviks to take over. New Crobuzon is exhausted, it cannot continue to fight the war in Tesh and deal with a restive population. The war has forced Parliament to begin talking to the unions and less radical dissidents. But a defeat would weaken New Crobuzon to the point of revolution. The Caucus sees a New Crobuzon defeat as a means of either gaining more power or sweeping into power.

At this point in the novel, Tesh is winning the war, managing to outfight New Crobuzon. Indeed, Tesh is described as New Crobuzon’s equal. The leadership seems to be suing for peace, but do not know who to go to. Who do they talk to? The embassy in New Crobuzon is empty, New Crobuzon’s embassy has likely been executed, and communication is almost impossible. Now, there is a problem. In Perdido Street Station, it is stated that Teshi utilize tramp ambassadors. They don’t utilize an embassy, but they utilize the postal service. Why not just send a letter to the Teshi embassy, the ambassador should be able to get it.

Any way, that is it with this section, save to state that the Teshi eye in the sun is an amazing moment, a truly chilling and frightening scene. I am thinking, after I finish Iron Council, of writing at least two or three additional posts: A Defense of New Crobuzon, An Exploration of Tesh, and The Teshi War. Next time, we see what Iron Council has become in “Retread.”

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council: Anamnesis: The Perpetual Train

This section of Iron Council is unlike anything seen in the rest of the Bas-Lag novels. The action of the main plot, though separate by geography, is unified roughly by time. But this section, this anamnesis, is more of an insertion, an extended jaunt to Judah Low’s past to see how Judah became Judah and the birth of the Iron Council from a railway strike.

Let’s begin first with the word “anamnesis.” What does it mean? According to Wiktionary, “anamnesis” means remembrance. And that is what this section is, a remembrance of Judah Low’s past and the birth of Iron Council. However, is there a deeper meaning to the usage of the word? Or is Mieville just using an unusual, uncommon word for its strangeness? Perhaps “The Perpetual Train” is in reality an attempt to create a Marxist form of the anamnesis theory from Plato? I do not know.

To be honest, this is my least favorite section of the novel so far. It reads in many ways as a Marxist hagiography, and succeeds only slightly better. It is better than expected, with several powerful moments, but it does seem unnecessary in the larger scheme of the novel itself.

Judah Low is the featured character in this section, his history from a young scout studying the Siltspear to the master of golems is explored. The human side of him is explored, and the messianic/ prophet depiction of him is both confirmed and subverted. Judah Low is generally a passive character, he only reacts to events. And then only if his “goodness” forces him to action. Several times, it is clear that he is not in control of his own actions, that he is operating on an instinctual goodness.

This seems to be a result of the Siltspear elder who touched him, unlocking both his “goodness” as well as his potential for creating golems. Now, the Siltspear are an interesting and amazing species that do not appear for long. Imbued with a strange natural affinity for making golems of amazing forms of matter, the Siltspear are clearly inspired by Native Americans. Though the Siltspear, given their xenian nature, is seemingly incapable of understanding what the coming railroad means for them. That they as a species are doomed to die. Their fate is, perhaps, the most powerful part of the narrative.

The Siltspear are destroyed by the religious, indeed fanatical, belief in the necessity of the transcontinental railroad linking Myrshock, Cobsea, and New Crobuzon. This will open up the interior of Rohagi for New Crobuzon’s trade. And Weather Wrightby is devoted to his vision. This devotion which is also madness.

Iron Council is, in part, a novel of a weird Wild West. And “The Perpetual Train” is heavily inspired by the Wild West. The transcontinental railroad, the boom towns it creates, the wild and lawless atmosphere, infect this part of the novel.

This is best seen in Judah’s relationship with Price How, a great gambler. Price takes Judah on as a butler and sometime bed partner. Their relationship lasts until Price gets into an ever increasing stakes game with an androgynous Maru’ ahm gambler that leads to Judah being placed as a bet. Judah flees and becomes a desperado for a time.

Maru’ahm is an interesting city. The style of government must be chaotic, a casino parliament?  But the nature of Maru’ahm society brings in a colorful bunch of aristocrats who love to gamble. Much like the game on the doomed Orbital in Bank’s Consider Phlebas. Given the distance of Maru’ahm from New Crobuzon, the aristocrat gamblers are aliens, something unknown in those parts.

But it is not just Maru’ahm that is interesting. We see a little of what the hinterland of Rohagi is like. While not stated, there seem to be some minor states in the path of the train (with only New Crobuzon, Myrshock, and Cobsea of any power). And it seems clear that the fate of most of those states will be under the heel of New Crobuzon. What I wonder is: how does New Crobuzon control its extended territory? Does it utilize the Militia or local collaborators who enforce the metropolis’s will? Or is it more along the lines of fealty and tribute rather than direct control? Given the high political position of capitalists in the city, I would not be surprised if the control is not more economic with the threat of Militia force.

With the strike, rebellion, and formation of the Iron Council, it is shown that New Crobuzon can field a Militia force some distance away from the city, although it appears to be a rather small, but highly trained force. And I think that is the power of the Militia, they are hidden, highly trained, and more advanced than their opponents, whether internal or external.

The formation of the Iron Council is an absolutely amazing moment in the novel, a scene of true power. And it does illustrate the problems inherent in collectivist actions. Who is incharge? Is it permissible to circumvent the will of the group? Who decides what? All of these challenges are well displayed.

The de facto leader (though she would deny that) is Ann-Hari, the leader of the prostitutes. From her first introduction, she is a dynamic force for change, possessed of a drive for the rails and for a new way of life, a new way of being. While Judah is the erstwhile protagonist of the section, Ann-Hari is the far more interesting character.

That’s all I have for this section. Next time, we return to Ori in “The Hainting.”

Bas-Lag Reading Project Iron Council Part Three: “Wine Land”

This part of Iron Council returns the reader to Cutter, Judah, and the others. This part is a continuation of the quest to find the Iron Council (the physical entity in the novel). This part is pretty good, but also frustrating.

Personally, I’m not buying Iron Council. I get that it is one of the few successful instances of defiance at New Crobuzon’s authority that is in the public imagination (as no one seems to remember Isaac and Derkhan’s fundamental role in ending the Plague of Nightmares). I also get that Iron Council has become metaphor, myth. A myth of socialist (or collectivist) success against the destructive capitalism of New Crobuzon, a myth and reality that New Crobuzon wants to destroy. But Iron Council as paramount image is too thick, to jammed into the consciousness of the reader.

My issue with this part is: what is New Crobuzon after in this section, prosecuting the war with Tesh or tracking down and destroying Iron Council? Judah, who honestly is obsessed with Iron Council, seems to think that all rails lead to Iron Council. But, I think it is equally likely that the Militia units encountered in this section are dedicated to hurting Tesh.

As stated in the text, New Crobuzon cannot attack Tesh itself yet. But that does not mean that New Crobuzon cannot attack Tesh’s economy. And that is why New Crobuzon is attacking the Galaggi wineherders (the Wine Land of the title). The wine of Galaggi (produced in one imaginative assed way) passes through Tesh markets to get to other markets (including New Crobuzon). And Tesh, as far as the reader knows, is not doing much about it.

During my first reading, I had assumed that Tesh and New Crobuzon were stalemated. Both sides not having a clear advantage. But now, I’m thinking that New Crobuzon is at the advantage, on the offensive, winning the war. Why? New Crobuzon is stated to have an outpost near Tesh, Tesh’s economic interests are threatened, and there is no mention of the Grain Spiral (the equivalent of Galaggi for New Crobuzon) being attacked by Tesh. The Militia is closer to Tesh itself, and New Crobuzon nor its near interests have come under attack. That is to change, but that is a topic for another time.

Speaking of the war, I had mentioned that I saw the Boer War as an inspiration, and I still see that. The Militia’s treatment of civilians and those not directly linked to Tesh or her war aims is just horrific. People are being massacred for the sheer hell of it. Even the cute bug people! But the description of necklaces of ears brings to mind (as an American) the Vietnam War. However, I think that the Boer War is more likely to have been on Mieville’s mind.

Moving away from the War, I do want to talk about Cutter and Quarbin. Starting with Quarbin.

Quarbin is a Tesh monk, a devote of the Hidden. As a price of devotion Quarbin has lost the knowledge of gender. The image of her/ his genitals are obscured to him/ her. This is a really fascinating aspect of the character. Gradually, Quarbin begins to loose the self she/ he has developed. First gender, then, to find Iron Council, language. Language is that which binds an individual to the community, to the nation. In loosing the language of Tesh, Quarbin no longer is Teshi. She or he is without nation, without place. And I think that Iron Council offers a chance for a new community as well as (as Cutter thinks) a way to die, to fade away. I also think that Quarbin does this to purposely break any loyalty for Tesh. Tesh forsakes the monastery to New Crobuzon, so Tesh can go to hell. Later on, I will have a problem with this.

Cutter is my favorite character in the novel (save for Spiral Jacobs). He is so very human and well characterized. His presence in the novel is conditional. Had things been different, he might not be involved. Hell, he may have a completely different politics than the Cutter of the novel. Indeed, this is where Mieville shines. As with Bellis, Cutter’s character is interesting, not for his opposition to New Crobuzon’s government, but for who the character is. Mind you, I may be biased as Cutter is a gay man.

The reason that Cutter comes to find Judah is because Cutter is in love with Judah. The relationship is fraught with class. For Judah, sex and love are not important. Indeed, Cutter is starved for sex with him, and when they do have sex, it seems to be perfunctory and cajoled.The relationship seems to be as much, if not more, about education and patrician friendship as it is about love and sex. They are not in an exclusive relationship, Judah is bisexual and Cutter has had several lovers. Including one of the wineherders.

Now, what fascinates me about Cutter is the story of the Militiaman. Had things been different, had Cutter and the nameless man met each other again (likely before Judah) would Cutter have the same politics? It is hard to tell. But given what is known about Cutter’s relationship with Judah, the passion and frustration/ rage, I wonder if Cutter might be better off with the other man.

This brings into question homosexuality in New Crobuzon. Like in Victorian London, homosexuality is criminalized (at least for humans). It is never quite explained why, but likely to be a religious prohibition. The gay subculture of New Crobuzon is very similar to that of Victorian London. There are the cultured aesthetes, those like Oscar Wilde, and there are the working men, those more like Cutter himself. Cutter prefers men similar to him in one night stands, but Judah is so alien, so different, that Cutter fell in love, hard. I also find Elsie and Pomeroy’s reactions to be well done. A traditionalist Marxist take on homosexuality is historically displayed. For the Caucus, as with early socialists, homosexuality is a “social ill” created by the capitalist corruption of New Crobuzon. This is, of course, bullshit, and Cutter refuses to be apologetic about who he is.  And that is why I like him so much.

Damn, this is a long post. Next time: the long interlude of The Perpetual Train.

Bas-Lag Reading Project: Iron Council Part Two: Returns

Iron Council is probably the least popular of the three Bas-Lag books. The reasons why are readily and easily apparent. The book is markedly different from Perdido Street Station and The Scar given its more experimental structure. Another reason is the confrontational nature of the politics of the book. Perdido and Scar are political, but their politics are subsumed by the adventure the protagonists endure. Iron Council transforms a socialist narrative into myth.

The second part of Iron Council, “Returns,” is  a departure from “Trappings.” The story shifts from Cutter and Judah to a working chap named Ori. Like the other main characters, Ori is a dissident. He buys Runagate Rampant, attends the furtive discussions, aids in subversive artistic endeavors, etc. But he is becoming ever more militant. He wants to do something rather than just sit around and talk about it. This leads, then, to his recruitment by the successors of Jack-Half-a-Prayer.

To be honest, I’m not too fond of Ori. His delusions of agency seem reminiscent of the Red Army Faction. Ori’s transition to violent militancy is almost parody at times. But I think the passion is there, which makes Ori such an uncomfortable character at times.

What I find interesting about this section are four things: The man who “attacks” Jack, Spiral Jacobs, What happened to New Crobuzon, and Tesh and the Witchocracy.

I think it is quite clear that the fate of Yag is revealed in this section. The scarred man with a scarf covering his face with a fondness for whips is almost certainly Yagherek (last seen ripping his feathers off in Perdido Street Station). What happened to him between the time of The Plague of Nightmares and the execution of Jack is unknown, and his subsequent fate is equally as murky.

I love Spiral Jacobs. When he appears, he is so fascinating. Personally, I love how he affects the whole of the novel. And the hints to the truth are so sweet. . .

New Crobuzon has entered or re-entered the late Victorian (equivalent) period. There have been some advances and some declines. The Constructs have been wiped out, the Construct Council destroyed. Golems have replaced the constructs as unintelligent labor.

And, New Crobuzon has begun shifting from an industrial/ manufacturing economy to a merchant/ service economy. Factories are closing and shops are opening. Salacus Fields is being gentrified by the idle rich who have come to tour rather than slum.

But what most interests me is the Tesh War. In the twenty years since Perdido and Scar, New Crobuzon has made trading arrangements with the Witchocracy. New and exotic goods have come to New Crobuzon by sea. Things are looking up even if there is a depression going on. Tourism to the Witchocracy even seems to be in existence! But then, New Crobuzon faces its usual maritime trade problems- damn piracy. This time, it seems to be the Teshi, whose tramp ambassador informs the Mayor that Tesh is at war with New Crobuzon.

Despite the fact that the reasons for the war are hidden, they are actually quite simple. Trade and power, imperialism. Tesh acts, I think, as a middle man. Trade has to pass through them. But New Crobuzon has bypassed them some how. And the Tesh do not like that. Conversely, it could be a Fennec, and New Crobuzon is the aggressor targeting Tesh’s local hegemony. In a way, an actualization of the aborted conflict with the Gengris from The Scar. Be sure, I have more on this for part three.

Anyway, to conclude, I want to propose my theory of some of the historical inspirations for Iron Council. First of all, I think the mercantile imperialism of the early nineteenth century, the aggressive cornering of exclusive markets. And perhaps the opening of Japan is another influence. The Tesh War also has shades (clearer in Part Three) of the Boer War. And Ori’s militarization is reminiscent of the anarchists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century as well as (perhaps) radicals like the Red Army Faction.

Any way, that is it for now. Next is “Wine Land.”

Bas-Lag Reading Project: Iron Council Part One: Trappings

At last, I begin the final book in China Mieville’s Bas-Lag Unity, Iron Council. I first read the novel two or three years ago. At the time, I was conflicted after finishing it. But this time, I hope to have a better handle on it.

“Trappings” the first part is a quest by a group of New Crobuzon dissidents (members of a group called the Caucus) looking for a specific man who is himself in search of the eponymous Iron Council. By itself, this section is notable for the excellent amount of tension in each chapter. This is how you write a yarn!

Anyway, I want to talk about two things, the tardy and politics.

The tardy, or ge’ain, are Cactacae giants. Most Cactacae are eight or nine feet, but the tardy can easily double that. There is even mention of one that is twenty feet. The tardy are intentionally created by their communities. The Cactacae reproduce by spreading seeds and essentially “planting” the next generation of Cactacae. The tardy are intentionally kept growing in the fields for a much longer period of time. This introduces a gigantism among them that also proves crippling and deforming. The tardy, nameless, serve as the heroes of their communities.

The tardy raises a question about the politics of Rohagi, though. The tardy live in three Cactacae villages near Shankell, which is one of the two predominantly Cactacae city states (the other being Dreer Samheer). So, I would guess that the three villages belong to Shankell, though probably distant and viewed as unimportant (or just too distant) for the Shankell authorities to do much about (as far as the reader knows).

This is more evidence to show that Bas-Lag is populated, not by nation states, but by city states with the greatest being New Crobuzon.

Speaking of New Crobuzon, apparently it is at war with Tesh, the city of the tramp ambassador. The war seems to be wide ranging given that Tesh (I think) is located to the south of the Cymek while Shankell is north of the desert.  And fighting (or skirmishing) is taking place north of the three villages as well. Interesting.  (And on a side note, is Cutter hoping that by finding Iron Council the war will tip more firmly away from New Crobuzon? Very interesting.)

One thing I do remember from my last reading is that at any given time, it is hard to determine what the Militia is doing- hunting the protagonists or fighting the war with Tesh.  Or that could just be the protagonists thinking that very Militia force they see are hunting them.

That’s all for this installment, next time: “Returns.”

On Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth

Lately, I’ve been watching some of the various television documentaries featuring Joseph Campbell. For those who don’t know, Joseph Campbell was a “mythologist” who specialized in comparative mythology and religion. Famous for condensing much of mythology into monomyths and influencing George Lucas, Campbell is a difficult nut for me to crack.

Perhaps it is my innate fondness for deconstruction, suspicion of grand narratives, or historical/ cultural mindedness, but I find myself troubled by Campbell’s condensing of all mythology into monomyths, grand narratives that lead to limited, interior, and spiritually affirmative meanings.

Now, I personally am not a mythology expert, but I do know that Campbell’s is not the only interpretation in town. There is the historical interpretation similar to Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths. And there are cultural, literary interpretations that are, perhaps, not so popular with popular culture or television documentaries.

Watching the first three episodes of The Power of Myth, I am struck by nostalgia, a sense of loss, and questioning.  I’ve seen the series several times in the past (there are a few good points about PBS’s pledge drives), and I have the same criticisms that I’ve always had. I’m not sure I agree that all mythology can, or should be, squeezed to a single range of meanings. Does this strip away the cultural varieties, the culture specific meanings, that are present in the myths? For a writer of fantasy, does The Hero with a Thousand Faces provide a decent scaffolding in world building and storytelling? Or is it, like cultural myths stripped of their uniqueness, producing derivative works that in the end limit the imagination of storytelling?

Perhaps its the questions asked that trouble me. Campbell asks what is the psychological and spiritual meaning of this myth and the corresponding condensation as Campbell looks for a way to subsume it into his monomyth. I on the other hand, ask what do these myths reveal about these cultures and why these myths have to be as they are. Take an example from the first episode of The Power of Myth. Campbell tells the tale of an Iroquois girl who married a powerful magician/ snake. Gradually, she is troubled by the fact that her new relatives are snake people and an old shaman aids her in escaping. What I want to know is what is the problem here? Why the sudden fear? There is another example from Hero with a Thousand Faces that equally raised those questions to me.

Do I like Joseph Campbell’s work? I don’t know really. Campbell comes out of a psychoanalytic tradition (Freud and to a lesser extent Jung) that I personally dislike. I don’t like condensing myth down to a personal spiritual journey that strips cultural and historical meanings from the myth. I’m going to finish off The Power of Myth as well as the other documentaries that are available online (thanks to Netflix streaming), but I am unsure if I will change my opinion.

What saddens me, about all of this, is that Joseph Campbell is likely going to be the final word on mythology in the popular consciousness. The Power of Myth (among others) is a testament to the informational possibilities of entertainment. But with the decline of PBS and the condensing of cable to only ratings grabbing reality programming, it is unlikely that anything quite like it will ever appear again. And that is the shame.

Fairy Tail and Secondary Protagonists

Reading the “Mysteries of Fairy Tail” section in Volume Nine, I am intrigued by the question of who the female lead character is. Is it Lucy Heartphilia or Erza Scarlet? Mashima gives fans of both characters in out by allowing the fans to make their own decision. If reader A likes Lucy, she is the female lead, but if reader B likes Erza, she is the female lead. Having read the first twelve volumes recently and some of the more recent arcs (Edolas and Tenrou), I think that Mashima alternates the secondary protagonist among the cast of characters. In this reading, Erza and Lucy are both the primary female character at alternating times.

There is no question that Natsu Dragneel is the primary protagonist. He is the hero and the character most focused on (as well as the most mysterious). However, Natsu often shares protagonist duties with another character (usually a member of Team Natsu). These temporary secondary protagonists are typically arc-centric.

The first two arcs (Macao and Daybreak) serve as introduction to the series and initial character development as well as the formation of the trio form of Team Natsu. In this case, Lucy is clearly the secondary protagonist.

The third arc (Lullaby) features the inclusion of Erza and Gray into the five person version of Team Natsu. I am tempted to give Lucy the secondary protagonist role. But a better case exists for Erza. Erza is the primary actor in this arc. She forces the formation of the team, she leads the team, and it is her goal of stopping Eisenwald that drives the arc’s plot. So, I am giving this one to Erza.

The fourth arc (Galuna Island) is Gray Fullbuster’s characterization arc. So the secondary protagonist role goes to him with no question. His unresolved issues with Ur and Lyon, his desire to protect Ur’s legacy, and his willingness to sacrifice himself are all on display. And it is he who takes out the main antagonist. So, with this in mind, who is the female lead here? Lucy is a primary actor, but Erza has a more impacting role. Her confrontation with Gray is an amazing moment and starts the process of her opening up more. In this case, maybe Lucy is more important.

The fifth arc (Phantom Lord) is Lucy’s characterization arc. She is at the center of things as the woman of desire. Fairy Tail fights the war, in part, to protect her. Phantom Lord has been hired to take her back home so she can be married off for a business transaction. She is both heroine and damsel, and emerges from the arc a stronger character (her confrontation with her father is excellent).

The sixth arc (Loke) is a departure to the rest of the series (so far). The arc acts as Loke’s characterization arc, but Natsu is not involved in the plot as the lead protagonist. So, is Loke or Lucy the primary protagonist? I say Lucy. She saves Loke from death and forms a much stronger bond with the celestial spirit. This arc, I think, reinforces the idea that Lucy is the primary female protagonist, but following this brief arc is all Erza.

The seventh arc (The Tower of Heaven) is Erza’s characterization arc. To this point, this is the longest and most epic of the arcs. And Erza storms the gates as the secondary protagonist. Her characterization, her growth as a character, is extremely well done. While still a strong warrior woman, Erza becomes much more human as a result of this arc. And if one wanted to play the “who is the female lead” game here, Erza is far ahead of Lucy as Lucy plays a pivotal, but smaller role.

Skipping arcs eight and nine (Fighting Festival and Oracion Seis) because I haven’t read them yet (and I won’t until they are officially released), I’m going to jump to arcs ten and eleven.

Arc ten (Edolas) is Happy’s characterization arc (as well as Mystogan’s). Despite this arc being about Happy and Charle’s backgrounds, I don’t know if you can characterize them truly as being the secondary protagonists here. They do play a key role and grow as characters. But Wendy Marvell can also be seen as being the secondary female protagonist (and definitely the main human female character). Lucy and Erza’s roles are both rather reduced here. But, I will give the secondary protagonist position to Happy because he does grow as a character immensely in this arc.

Finally, arc eleven (Tenrou Island) is a pain to ascribe secondary protagonist status to. It looked to initially be Cana Alberona, but with her being knocked out, I’m not so sure. Maybe this longest, most epic arc (so far) is another departure of the normal structure. Maybe Natsu is the the sole protagonist with everyone else as greater or lesser supporting characters. Then again, this arc isn’t over yet.

To conclude, I think that the female lead character often switches between Lucy and Erza (and recently Wendy). Indeed, this method allows for the fans to decide for themselves who that lead female character is. Given the shifting nature of the secondary protagonist, I do not think a definite answer is possible.

Fairy Tail

I’ve been meaning to put this up for several weeks.

Fairy Tail is being streamed by Funimation. Two episodes a week. I’m salivating at the moment. I can’t wait for the official dub release. Also, I’m going to be going on a Fairy Tail manga binge this weekend. So you can expect a few thoughts on it next week or something.

 

Flashing Swords and Thoughts on Sword and Sorcery

Yesterday, I finished reading the fourth volume in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords! anthology series. On the whole, I rather liked the book. My favorite story is beyond question Moorcock’s “The Lands Beyond the World” with John Jakes’s “Storm in a Bottle” a mid distance second. Katherine Kurtz, the lone woman in the anthology, had “Swords Against the Marluk” as her entry. I’m torn on my opinions about that story. The writing and world building are well done, but the posthumous save by the long dead king hampers the story, if you ask me. Reading the anthology, I’m struck by several different thoughts about Sword and Sorcery, or, in Lin Carter’s estimation, the Sacred Genre.

To be honest, I always smiled whenever Carter inserted the words “the Sacred Genre” in his introductions. Clearly, he is trying to valorize Sword and Sorcery as a genre; a genre denigrated save for brief respites. But it comes off as a little silly, parodic really.

Reading “Storm in a Bottle,” I realized something- Conan is a genius. He isn’t stupid. He isn’t ignorant. He is an able military strategist, a polyglot, and has been known to attend philosophical debates. So why is he seen in the popular imagination as all brawn with little brains? I think the term barbarian colors our understanding of Conan (and honestly the cultural Other). Barbarian means an Other, someone who is not from one’s own ethnic or nation group. The ancient Greeks viewed anyone who was not Greek as being a barbarian. From Macedonian and Italic to Scythian, Persian, and Egyptian, all were barbarians. And tell me, were the Persians and Egyptians any less advanced than the Greeks? The Chinese have also used similar terms to describe others, although a significant amount of Chinese cultural influences can raise a group from barbarian to civilized (a good example would be the Japanese). And do not forget that even “barbarous” peoples have technology and skills that major civilizations may lack (the chariot was likely developed on the steppe).

So, why does the “Barbarian” character have to be either stupid, uneducated, or unwilling to learn? Duality, I think. Often times in a Sword and Sorcery tale a warrior of prodigious skill is either antagonized by or antagonizes a sorcerer of some prodigious skill. As the sorcerer is often an analogue for the priest, the scientist, the scholar, and the bureaucrat, the barbarian often has to fill the opposing roles. The barbarian (or the warrior) is by default less educated. It also provides room for critiques of civilization and notions of civilization. Although Brak’s rationalism and agnosticism are hard to believe. Again, there is a contrast- rationalism and agnosticism are products usually of higher education but Brak is incapable of even understanding “chess.”

I find all of this annoying, but understandable. As much as any epic fantasy is going to be inspired by Tolkien to varying degrees, so too will Sword and Sorcery be inspired by Howard to varying degrees. And to degrees that makes no sense. Howard’s Conan can be seen as a commentary on the attitudes of the formally educated towards those without it. The point is that Conan looks like he is dumber than a log, which is all the more surprising when he starts speaking several languages and formulates battle strategy. But other writers don’t see beyond just the “beefy stupid barbarian.”

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now, but really haven’t had the time to explore it in any real depth. As those who have read my Sorcerers of series, I am a proud member of team Sorcery. Maybe that is why I like Elric and Clark Ashton Smith so much.

Anyway, I will end this by saying- libraries and used bookstores are still relevant! Go to your local library!

Next time- Expect some Fairy Tail.