wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: October, 2021

On Tolkien as mythos (or not).

Note: The following is a sketchy first-draft excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –w.

It makes little sense to speak of a ‘Tolkien mythos’ — his ‘legendarium’ lacks the quality of mystery, of uncertain and seemingly unknowable depth, which characterizes the Lovecraft mythos (‘Yog-Sothothery’), the Silver John stories of Many Wade Wellman, or the Discworld books (q.v. all three). There’s rather a domestic quality to Tolkien; he doesn’t give the feeling of having received or discovered the Middle-Earth stories, and as we read there’s a pervasive deflating sense that every detail of his world-story is Fully Worked Out somewhere. (His son/literary executor Christopher Tolkien’s periodic exhumation of ‘new’ JRRT works deepens this sense, unfortunately but perhaps not unintentionally.)

Tolkien obsessives love this, of course; the idea of a fantastic encyclopedia of all things is certainly a locus of ‘adventurous expectancy’ for many readers, and the idea that Tolkien himself became such an encyclopedia does have a strange charm and charge. But while Tolkien’s characters occupy a world shot through with myth-history, in which the relics of the ancient past regularly irrupt through the earth itself (think of the Balrog, the colossi at Rauros, the White Tree), Tolkien didn’t write in such a way as to extend that sense to the reader. Tolkien’s mythic past is a known unknown.

Put another way: if you’re a fan of Middle-Earth, what could you possibly write fanfic about? Frodo’s day off? Mary Sue Pandolfin, who romances Isildur and charms Legolas? There’s a whole bookshelf of knockoff Cthulhu stories and games, a vast Star Wars Extended Universe (look up the ‘Corporate Sector’)…but if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser came to Gondor, what could they possibly fill their time with? Tolkien created a world-story, a world built for one story; there’s nothing left to happen once The line of tales has been drawn, and anyone else who turns up is just there to watch the Chosen do their heroic thing.

Put another other way: there’s a reason Lord of the Rings-themed board games have done reasonably well, while Middle-Earth roleplaying games have never worked. Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Role Playing, which I owned and loved as a kid, is remembered — if at all — as a valiant but doomed attempt to carve out a space for ‘noncanonical’ stories in a bespoke paracosm where everything is built to feel canonical. Like the beloved (and successful!) West End Games take on Star Wars roleplaying, MERP worked as a source of fan-supplements for nerds, but unlike George Lucas, Tolkien gives no sense of a busy world in which something else is about to happen.

Partly that’s down to story-form: Lucas created serial/episodic tales, Tolkien set out to make a unified ‘legendarium.’ The edges of the Star Wars universe remain ragged in order to accommodate Upcoming Episodes, and that has imaginative consequences — for one thing, what’s Lucas’s storyworld called? Who knows? The Star Wars tales are named after a kind of thing that happens in them, ‘star wars,’ while Middle-Earth is actually explicitly called ‘Middle-Earth’ by its inhabitants; of course this is presented as a translation of Hobbit-speak, or Wizard-speak, or the ‘common tongue’ or whatever, but the sense remains that the world, the tale, is bounded by the manner of its telling — the words themselves constrain it. And they constrain anyone who’d follow. ‘Pulp Tolkien’ and ‘frontier Tolkien’ and ‘Gimli goes into politics’ are ludicrous contradictions on face, but ‘Star Wars romance’ and ‘Star Wars detective story’ and ‘Jedi schoolkids’ aren’t, and that’s as much down to the exclusivity of Tolkien’s storytelling approach as to Lucas(film)’s inclusivity.

(I feel comfortable predicting that the forthcoming ‘Second Age of Middle-Earth’ TV series will be terrible and feel nothing at all like Tolkien — like Petter Jackson’s horribly ill-advised Hobbit movies, for what it’s worth.)

To be clear, none of this criticism indicts Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has provided me with two of the peak aesthetic experiences of my life, more than 20 years apart, and I look forward to revisiting that tale some other autumn. It’s one of the great achievements in all of English literature, not a perfect novel but perfect of its kind, and Middle-Earth has continued to enrapture readers because of the nature of its imagining. You don’t go to Middle-Earth to brainstorm fanfic topics or project yourself into some corner of the tale, you go to feel what the hobbits feel on their journey through mythic geography, to get Tolkien’s vivid sense of walking through a sort of fictionalized Lancashire studded with broken ruins of millennia-old empires. To feel small in a particular way, connected to an immensity of Time, over the extent of a thousand-page novel: of course control is required.

Whatever Tolkien’s obsessive ‘legendarium’ meant to him, it’s Lord of the Rings that matters to the human species, and its value depends on its completeness, its cohesiveness. The closest it comes to admitting something wholly alien to its own cosmos is the fairytale episode at Tom Bombadil’s house, easily the most widely derided (and indeed disregarded) piece of the story, which Jackson simply cut from his (disastrously superseding) movie translation altogether. Bombadil is the story’s most Lovecraftian element, you might say: he steps in and out of the tale without quite feeling of it — something (a literary device, a demigod) vast, warm, and sympathetic, but palpably Other. The story closes around him as he goes.

You know what I’d love to read, though? A story about a team of modern archaeologists recovering cursed artifacts in the remains of Middle-Earth, trying to figure out who built the cyclopean ruins, colossal tiered cities, creepy subterranean delvings, and odd fairy-rings that dot the landscape of what they’d always suspected was just England. What ritual was performed at this burial mound in the field amongst standing stones? How did a gold ring come to rest in this river?

There’s room for a weird tale, for dark strange myth — ‘in the deep places’ — but I fear Middle-Earth must pass away entirely for us to find it.

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On rereading Harry Potter, volumes 1-3.

The first one

Haven’t read this since, what, 2001? Scattered notes:

  • Almost no spellcasting (no wands) but plenty of magical-world sensawunda: if memory serves we don’t even see Harry cast a single spell (on purpose) yet there’s an important foreshadowing-interlude with the centaurs. Already building the entire series. Weird that she doesn’t make a bigger deal out of it. This time around, this felt like a miscue.
  • Harry’s dislike of Snape is instant and mutual. After it’s revealed that Snape was protecting him, they don’t get a chance to talk. An oversight.
  • Dumbledore presents himself as a kindly old codger…but at the end his role is revealed and it’s like he has a separate personality. Interesting.
  • She knew from the start what she was doing.
  • Hermione is intolerable — interesting that Rowling paints her as Harry/Ron would have. Then she hugs Harry in the dungeon at the end, and lets him know there’s something else to her.
  • I think perhaps she hadn’t yet conceived of the teleportation stuff that would later prove so convenient for the narrative.
  • A lot of Dahl-esque cruelty — the depiction of the Dursleys is cartoonishly sadistic, seemingly out of measure with the rest of the book. To me, at least, it’s the least believable part of what otherwise strives to be (if not ‘realistic’) a believable coming-of-age story. Yet perhaps that’s just the characteristic tonal mix of of the English-boys’-adventure tale?
  • The Sorting Hat remains a frankly ludicrous contrivance and stains the rest of the series with its cruel, frankly immoral, and (worse) illogical treatment of the children. As ‘worldbuilding’ it makes no sense at all. If the idiotic accusations of bigotry against Rowling have any merit, perhaps the only support is that feature of her work, where children are magically sorted according to some mysterious essential quality. (Unsurprisingly, Rowling has written that she added the Sorting Hat solely to solve the problem of getting kids into opposing houses, i.e. it’s workaday plotstuff disconnected from any world-mystery.)
  • ‘You-Know-Who’ feels, similarly, like a kid-book idea that Rowling was stuck with after the success of the first book. Of course, Voldemort barely registers here. That might be the biggest disconnect between the first book and later — like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, Voldemort is just a bit of background colour in this first episode.
  • This first volume is thin in terms of both pagecount and story material — half the book is gone before Harry even gets to Hogwarts, the school year is barely sketched in, and insofar as there’s an on-campus mystery to solve (what’s Snape up to?) it’s almost perfunctory. Rowling does successfully balance episodic schoolkid shenanigans (Quidditch etc.) and the unfolding mystery plot, but the latter is never terribly compelling, partly because the intra-Hogwarts mystery material can’t even kick off fully until more than half the book’s gone! Yet that ‘thinness’ doesn’t feel like a failing but rather a choice.
  • Rowling’s restraint in handling Snape is remarkable: he’s obviously dear to her, his story is the deepest mystery in the whole series, yet she sensibly keeps him offstage most of the time…
  • …which brings me to what might be the essential feature that fans (I suppose I’ve always been one) fall in love with: while the Earth (the broad magical/historical logic) of the HP novels isn’t so well developed, the inner world — the family histories, the social and historical networks at Hogwarts itself — hugely overflows the early books. Like GRR Martin’s slowly unfolding history of ‘Robert’s Rebellion,’ the story of Voldemort and his own magical revolution is doled out over the series with eerily assured pacing and attention to emotional detail. Conventional wisdom holds that Rowling suffered Stephen King disease in the middle and was allowed to write far too long in later books (I remember Order of the Phoenix being interminable and repetitive the first time around), but even in this first volume it’s clear that there’s far more story to tell than Rowling has pages for, and the density of the work is set not by some lack of skill or depth on her part but the chosen form/genre/style of the tale. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the early books feel too short to me. Imagine what it must have been like for her to plan the long Voldemort story more than a decade in advance. There’s iron discipline at work here, admirable enviable and remarkable, and (with the exception of Deathly Hallows, which I always had complicatedly mixed feelings about) I’m looking forward to the long books most of all.

The second one

Noticeably stronger than the first volume: deeper, darker, funnier, with the ‘mythology’ closer to the forefront. Tom Riddle is a compelling baddie and I wish he’d turned up earlier in the story — the diary’s a brilliant little artifact that appears out of nowhere when needed, feeling like a contrivance. Rowling’s inventions continue to charm me after all these years, I can’t believe it. The weak spot: soft-pedaling the horror elements. She would overcome that later, with her series of torturers (including the astonishingly cruel Umbridge).

Small ‘worldbuilding’ touches, like giving Voldemort a definite age, ground the work; the fairytale vibe dissipates and something deeper and sadder sets in.

Overall, a fine setup for Prisoner of Azkaban, her best book and vanishingly close to perfect — after which the series turns into a sometimes-frustrating stop/start affair.

The third one, with Sirius Black

Because the film is so far superior to the others in the series — it’s the only entry in the entire series with a unique visual style or directorial vision — I’m tempted to assume the book is correspondingly better than volume 4, Goblet of Fire. It may not be so, but I’ll find out when I reread that book later this month or next.

But this is beyond doubt: Azkaban is a giant leap beyond the first two volumes, and if it weren’t marred by Rowling’s customary ‘But why have you gathered us in the drawing room, Inspector?’ mystery-resolution sequence, it would be the first (perhaps only) perfect book in the series. Here Rowling exposes the still-bloody generational wound at the center of the story, the failure of the previous generation to deal with Voldemort and the very personal stories which underlie that schematic good/evil myth-history plot. In the end, the Marauder’s Map — one of Rowling’s very best bits of invention — becomes an artifact of extraordinary symbolic richness, neatly uniting the attractive magical-schoolboy fantasy of Hogwarts, the mystery plot, and Rowling’s potent theme of unrecoverable (but never fully lost) ancestral past.

The deep structure of the book mirrors that of the series. Harry never knew his parents, and he’s slowly brought into a world where everyone knew them — which is of course both crushing and comforting; his maturation depends on making peace with what he can never fully understand: the complicated young people his parents were and the compromised older people they never had the misfortune to become.

It’s particularly interesting that Rowling, a single mother who famously wrote the first volume with a literal baby literally bouncing on her knee, focuses early on Harry’s obsession with the absent father he closely resembles, only to reveal James Potter as a kind of prolonged-adolescent, dead before he could become the villain. Only in the final volumes does Rowling broach the subject of Harry’s mother’s (sexual) agency, her rejection of the monstrous hero Snape for the handsome cad Potter. No surprise that Rowling’s generational revelations are linked symbolically to sexual awakening: in Chamber of Secrets Ginny Weasley falls for the attractive bad boy Tom Riddle — the sensitive ‘half-blood’ orphan — and thereby nearly brings Voldemort back to life; crucially, Ginny realizes what Riddle really was, the power that their fannish epistolary affair has over her, and disposes of the diary itself, unknowingly providing Harry with the tool to defeat Riddle. In other words, she narrowly avoids the fate that landed Jo Rowling on the dole with a baby of her own. Harry’s own role in the story, as an attractive mischief-maker prone to impulsive anger and even vindictiveness but kept grounded by everlasting friendship, is more complicated than Rowling’s critics allow, and in Azkaban that depiction noticeably deepens, as Harry’s privileged relationship to the wizarding world (‘first-name basis with the Minister of Magic’ indeed!) and his barely repressed violent urges come fully into play.

(My 11yr-old son keeps pointing out, as we watch the movies, that ‘Harry has anger issues.’)

I’ll note, though, that the film is even better than the book — incredibly, it might be the only volume for which that’s true — in particular its slight recasting of the climactic time-travel material, which Rowling portrays well but the film handles perfectly, heightening the tension and cutting most of the Cymbeline-length infodump in the Shrieking Shack. The problem with the film is that it achieves its terminal velocity by cutting out all the interesting psychodynamics of the Marauders and Snape; Rowling’s so-called ‘worldbuilding’ (really social portraiture) is one of her great strengths as a storyteller, and even during this patience-testing stretch of the book she dextrously renders the Marauders’ laddish relationships (including their petty treatment Pettigrew). The filmmakers did include one perfect piece of staging, through: when Lupin transforms, Snape is awake, and he instantly leaps to protect the children. This moment of instinctive humanity, entirely uncommented upon in the text, does more for Snape’s character than a whole movie’s worth of arched eyebrows and pregnant pauses, and Alan Rickman does wonders with an often schematic/melodramatic role.

I adored Prisoner of Azkaban — again. It’s fleet, funny, empathetic, emotionally realistic (even in its sometimes quite nasty caricatures, e.g. the Dursleys), and ultimately totally satisfying despite the serial-narrative heavy lifting it has to do. Here the Potter books go from discrete episodes linked by background serial elements to a through-composed multipart story, and Rowling nails the transition.

(Plus there’s something sweet about the way Lupin delivers his revelations in the Shrieking Shack scene, isn’t there? We’ve found the baddie, we’re laying bare everyone’s motivations…let’s tell a story, shall we, children? Of course a children’s book would go that way.)

Sexual identity (politics).

Epistemic status: Thinking out loud, written months ago in what I can only assume was a real bad mood. I genuinely have no idea whether any of this holds up. I’ll note, though, that it’s the kind of old-fashioned blogpost I don’t write anymore, where I hit on a metaphor I like and try to pass it off as philosophy. Somebody give me tenure. –wa.

The funny thing about ‘I’m a sub’ — ‘I’m a queer nonbinary top’ — ‘I’m an asexual furry’ — is the way such declarations assume absolute fixity of sexual identity and ‘preference.’

Wait…fixity? Don’t you mean ‘fluidity,’ oldperson/fascist?

You’d think that, wouldn’t you.

Let’s talk about Magic: The Gathering for a second.

M:TG‘s best trick was to turn deckbuilding into a game activity, a subgame played away from the table. For millions of players over a quarter-century (though by no means all), creating a custom deck has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of M:TG play.

Deckbuilding is solitaire. It’s wonderful, but it’s purely self-centered. Indeed, deckbuilding-by-newsgroup is known as ‘theorycrafting,’ and is a hugely popular activity in the M:TG community — though ‘theorycrafting’ is an awfully elevated term for ‘talking about card combos with strangers.’

The ‘play of the hand,’ meanwhile, is all compromise and reaction and tactical maneuvering and plans not surviving contact with the enemy. What happens at the table is the game itself, and this is where ‘filthy casuals’ find their enjoyment — hence the increasing popularity of the grab’n’go fixed-deck distribution model, even for M:TG itself.

I’ll note here that the term ‘simultaneous solitaire’ is used derisively to talk about games where players choose strategies which are carried out by rote, independent of opponent interaction. Such plans are known as ‘degenerate strategies,’ and they’re major sources of the dreaded Negative Play Experience, because they take the play out of gameplay. They turn it into ‘a piece of business’ (cf. Rob Long’s magnificent book Conversations with my Agent).

For expert M:TG (or Pok√©mon TCG) players, at-the-table gameplay itself is fun — they wouldn’t stick around otherwise — but high-level play is in dispiritingly large measure a quest to create perfectly predictable decks, removing contingency and guaranteeing the execution of a set gameplan. That’s where the ‘customizable’ in ‘customizable card games’ (CCG) comes from — though note, too, that it used to stand for the more honestly nauseating ‘collectible’…

Now, sex, or rather politics:

Sexual identitarianism — e.g. my opening list of taxonomic declarations — is sold to westerners now as a form of freedom. (Never mind that freedom cannot be sold.) Declare your allegiance, align yourself with a group, know your place (and declare it in your Twitter bio), and We will back up your claim. If you like, We’ll even join in deriding those people so uncool that they don’t yet have a paraphilia. ‘Marginal’ identity is seen as a source of virtue — or rather pity, but only fascists split hairs — and crucially you can opt in to such identity by declaring a marginal sexual preference. (Insert dark joke about ‘predictable endpoint of neoliberalism’ here.)

Sexual identitarianism is deckbuilding — no, it’s theorycrafting, simultaneous solitaire. The (let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘ideological’) purpose of saying ‘I’m an asexual furry’ isn’t to announce the kind of activities you like, it’s to create the conditions for enforceability, i.e. a justification for disconnecting from an uncomfortable situation. ‘Isn’t that a universal good?’ I suppose it would be, yes, if you assumed ‘uncomfortable’ meant ‘bad.’

The ‘play of the hand’ is where the action is, erotically speaking. The good part of sex is…sex, not theory. But sexual identitarianism’s core sleight-of-hand is to displace eroticism, which is all about bisociation and ambivalence and negotiation and suspense and longing (usually unfulfilled, in the aggregate) and vulnerability and story and posture and tension and fluidity and improvisation and performance and drama and imaginative freedom, in favour of what we might well call brand loyalty. In an identitarian-capitalist system, the outcome of the sexual/ludic/social interaction must be preordained, which means avoiding collective improvisation and negotiation to the extent possible, hence Tinder instead of clubbing and ‘I’m an XYZ’ instead of ‘Let’s find out.’ That’s the palliative point of such anxious preemptive categorization: to stave off unpalatable/unmarketable uncertainty in people accustomed to pleasure ‘on demand’ and by design, even if such preemption means chucking out the eroticism-baby with the uncertainty-bathwater.

Yes motherfucker, you just read the best metaphor in the history of metaphor.

(Hey did you know that collaborative board games — people against a rules-system, an AI, an no interpersonal competition to be found — are hugely popular nowadays? Indeed. I won’t say why.)

Deckbuilding is a fun solo activity but every ‘filthy casual’ — let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘vanilla’ — knows that the play is the game.

Back to where we started: today’s declarations of sexual identity assume absolute fixity of those identities and of sexual ‘preference’… by which I mean they assume the displacement of sexual desire from the realm of imagination — ambivalence, negotiation, play — to the realm of taxonomy and strategy, the business plan, the knowable, the saleable, the prepackaged, the reassuring, the generic. They manifest an ideology that turns bodies into types, into data points. They’re boring, which is not unconnected to why they’re popular.

Yet you must be able to fuck as you please, obviously, as long as you’re not harming anyone, yourself included. And no one should have to hide (from) their healthy sexuality.

So…what?

The next bit’s the hard bit, so I’ll defer (avoid) it by ending here.