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Last week the Tolkien group I am in,  the Grey Haven’s group, read the chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring about the Barrow Downs. Shortly before this meeting, Bill, a fellow member had asked what a “Barrow” was, and I told him about all those burial grounds in many countries, including Sweden, where men had raised mounds over their famous dead, sometimes calling them “barrows”. The Old Mounds of Uppsala, is in fact one of my favorite places in the world because of its ancient, rich and multifaceted history around this place of cult, faith, cruelty and hope.

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But during that meeting I started thinking about why, in Tolkien’s text, the Witch King of Angmar chose to send evil spirits (called “barrow wights”) to possess the old bones of once good and brave kings and chieftains who had fought against him and his forces in the wars. I realize that part of it was to haunt the area of Cardolan, so it would never be inhabited by men again, but why the bones of these once loved but now dead individuals? Why not just order the evil spirits to settle around all those stone formations in this old province of the former Arnor kingdom?

Devon, another clever member, compared the Barrow wights to the Draugr from old Scandinavian mythology and lately in popular culture used often in the Bethesda game “Skyrim” where they are aptly depicted as revenants, bound or returned to their old bodies in order to guard grave treasure. The comparison absolutely has merit, as the barrow wights in Tolkien’s text seem drawn to buried treasure. And yet still, the draugr were left over shards of souls bound to their own old bodies. Not spirits possessing other people’s earthly leftovers.

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I became more and more inclined to interpret the possession of the old bones of once brave and kind humans, by evil spirits as a way for the Witch King of Angmar to not only have practical usage of them, but also to humiliate both the dead Dunedain as well as the Dunedain that were left to wander the old wilderness that once was a great kingdom.

The interesting aspect of this theory is that it would showcase the fundamental lack of understanding on the Witch King’s part for what constitutes “the gift of man” (“man” is here, as well as in Tolkien’s texts a way of phrasing “human” not a gender specific word), which was to grow old and die and have a soul that does not travel to the undying land in the West, where the elves go when they get weary of Middle Earth, but that travels into a great mystery.

The Witch King himself, as a powerful unliving being, mostly understands how to cling on to power, treasure and land – or how to corrupt it so that others are unable to enjoy it. The concept of leaving behind that which is powerful or valuable would be unfathomable to him. The concept of choosing to die – or to die metaphorically – to walk away from something so completely that no attempt to humiliate us by desecrating that which we let remain behind, could ever hurt us, because we have entered something else entirely – is not something that can be done by those that only know how to clutch on.

And most of us do clutch on, even living humans, in real life, as well as in Tolkien’s texts and other literature. That which is known, and perhaps even grants us material or emotional power or comfort, often seems preferable to some great unknown “mystery” or “nothingness”. There are whole segments of religion which teach that we won’t be truly wise until we can let go and not be clinging and expecting. I won’t go into that here…but I have written before (although not in Tolkien related words) about how there is a real and tangible danger of becoming a corrupt wight possessing old used up bones – gradually transforming something in us that once had purpose and goodness into something void and destructive, by just clutching and never letting go.

Unlike in literature or film, corruption is rarely complete, blunt or fast. It is subtle and full of gray shades and sensible explanations. We see the blatant effects of it, around in the world, but what about the self, where do we start to not understand “the gift of man” and just cling and possess instead of letting go?

Ultimately I can only go to myself and all those hard and sometimes surprisingly small situations where I needed to not hover over the bones. I say small matters, and I mean it. That is where it all starts. Did somebody once call you something (whether flattering or unflattering) that you attached yourself to very, very hard? Well that’s where it starts in my mind.

My whole life, I will fight to not be a wight or a Witch King, and it’s never going to be easy. And I do not think it matters if you are an atheist, a theist, a follower of various spiritual or philosophical paths or a chooser of the agnostic shrug, there is always truth in letting go of the old bones and dare to wander into the mystery of the unknown.

I once wrote a poem about the Old Mounds of Uppsala, where great deeds of spiritual goodness as well as great deeds of spiritual cruelty and fear were once performed, I was asked to post it in connection to the barrow discussion, so here it is:

The Old Mounds

These relaxed hills could fool you now
but time was when bearded men hung horses
from the oaks and the vale was brimming
with boats crossing for the barrows
of nobility, the bronze queen’s chest
filled with beaten silver paid for the thin lipped
stone saints who much later looked down
on wanderers from the eastern mound.

There is a birch glade on the lower grounds
where midsummer and midwinter curious
things happen. Once at 4 a.m. this badger
caught me by surprise – a wild animal
suddenly forming a human expression
he turned on me but I bridled him
with his name and saddled him with mine
swinging a thistle whip

we took a ride down the runestone road
where the Walpurgis bonfire is lit.
By the blackwood stave temple
we stopped to look at the church-
verger’s collapsing shack – an abandoned
servant’s solstice offering

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[cross posted to The Grey Haven’s Blog]

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I’m going to attempt a difficult topic here, which I’m not at all sure that I can pull off. But first, watch Tim Minchin’s song, which is not only hilarious, but applies to *everything* I’m trying to say here. It actually applies to half of all jokes by stand up comedians in the whole wide world.

Care for a rape joke? Of course not. (and if you do, you can very well bugger off to another part of the internet, inhabited by people who tear off wings off of flies and kick puppies for therapeutic purposes)

There are two kinds of people, those who understand that taboo subjects are taboo for a reason, and while they can be funny (and sadly, they really are, sometimes), that can only be explored – if ever – in a very limited, contextual and specific setting. A setting fairly few are actually invited to share. Mostly those who are invited have some kind of PTSD, which gives them the VIP card to that particular chamber.

The other kind of people are the ones who rave about how “political correctness” ruins their world. Regardless of age, they are behaving like spoiled little brats who lived in their parents’ basement well into their adult age, got everything they wanted without having to work very hard, and are just generally pissed off because they can’t laugh at jokes that are inappropriate. They also display a worrisome frontal lobe issue in regards to empathy. They begrudge that they do not have the VIP card to that limited chamber where complicated laughter can take place. They want the VIP card without having to go through the hardship that grants you it, or without being carefully selected as friends of those who do.

If anybody missed the point of Tim Minchin’s song, think of an anagram to Ginger, just rearrange the letters.

Here is another clue: I think it can be funny as hell when black comedians use certain words in a gangsta setting. I think it is embarrassing to the point of my toes curling when white comedians do it. (thankfully it is not so common anymore, but it used to be)

What made me think about this again was my own behavior at a book club meeting this last weekend. It is one of my book clubs (I am in several), called “Literary Pie”. Basically it’s a group of fairly awesome people who meet up, sharing tons of delicious food, and then talk about the book for about half an hour, and then generally wank off on literature in general, writing, politics, games and a plethora of other things.

A friend in that group was talking about a fantasy series she likes (after I asked for fantasy recommendations) and she explained that the books could be pretty grim, for instance containing rape. Without thinking it out in my head I asked her “So, is it good or bad rape?”

Everybody started laughing and another friend patted me on the arm saying something like “How about that good ol’ rape huh?” And I attempted to explain that in literature there is “good rape” – which basically means that the rape is traumatic, well described and often difficult to read, because you feel for the victim. “Bad rape” is rape that is made okay by the author. Basically the author uses rape or “rapey” maneuvers by a powerful character to subdue another character who ends up liking it, and falling for the first character. Rape as a device for seduction. It would have to be a Nobel Prize worthy bloody fantastic author to pull that off, without failing. And most fail miserably, without even knowing it. (it often takes a certain kind of cognitive dissonance to even attempt to use rape as such a plot device for sexual or romantic power).

Somehow, after explaining this, and quibbling amiably to and fro, I started using a phrase that I haven’t used in years. It should be said in a faux concerned semi therapeutic tone and goes like this:

Are you sad? How sad are you? Are you RAPE sad?

I invited the group into the VIP room, and some people literally laughed so hard that they were lying shaking over the table.

That is how powerful unleashed taboo jokes can be. But they are never uncomplicated. I had explained to my friends that this phrase was used in a very specific setting and context by a group of women I once was part of. The phrase in itself was not invented by us, but by another two women I knew elsewhere, also for a specific context. I cannot explain how liberating and funny “Are you sad? How sad are you? Are you RAPE sad?” was in that group. Basically somebody could have an abysmally shitty day, with depression and flashbacks and hardship to accomplish even the most rudimentary tasks, and they would get that question from the right person (the wisdom of Tim Minchin again, folks!), and they would brighten up and crack up and have a latte and almost feel like a normal person again for a while. It was like a magical code, working brilliantly in that highly specific context.

I took a very big risk by introducing my friends to that VIP room. The risk was not on my head, I’m fine. But for their sake. Not only do I not know their personal history in that kind of depth, but I also don’t know how they feel even if they don’t have the VIP card. Maybe they feel strongly about somebody they know with a card. Maybe they have a specifically developed sense of sympathy that does not go well with that phrase.

I took a risk, and I’m still not sure if it was right. I can only say that I do it extremely seldom, going on a totally unscientific, unreflected gut feeling. But it felt good to me when they laughed, and it was the right kind of laughter (a kind of insider “fuck the man, fuck depression, fuck the world and lets have a drink – kind of laughter). But if even one person had an uncomfortable feeling inside during that joke, I apologize deeper than the bottom of lake Baikal in Siberia. And this text would be part of that explanation/apology, if need be.

I have a theory about little girls reading. Particularly little girls reading classic heroic tales. Because it is (from a longitudinal perspective) a fairly recent phenomenon to have female heroines that aren’t sidekicks in stories, little girls reading the truly classical classics – you know, the ones where 96% of the heroes are guys, those little girls have the weirdest literary crushes.

When it comes to little boys, it’s pretty straight forward, the little boy wants to be the hero. He envisions himself as Robin Hood or a misunderstood but heroic Peter Parker, or perhaps a valiant Aragorn. Or, some little boys who are more “realistic dreamers” (seemingly an oxymoron, I know…) envision themselves being wingmen to these guys, or variations of these guys, like maybe not the Batman, but a Bruce Wayne sort of character in their own story.

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You want to be me little boy? Sure! No need to bypass anything, just BE ME!

 

But girls have it a bit more complicated. Most female characters have another agenda than being a pure hero. In a better scenario they are a supportive sidekick to the megahero, or they are there for a more diffuse purpose which the young girl may sense on some level but which in most cases cannot really be bought as a hero package. The girl in the tale is almost always pretty, so the little girl gets that that’s the way to be. She is often, but not always, the love interest of a male character, which is interesting, but ultimately a whole other ballgame than being a hero. Most often she is a princess or damsel who needs saving or is at best a form of inspiration to the hero. In really generous cases the girl gets to show that she can be a little brave or admirable too, but just that one scene in the spotlight, where she gets an appreciative nod from the real hero.

We can have discussions about modern  children’s and YA culture, where some of those stereotypes are changing, but the glacier doesn’t melt that fast, and many canonical stories still are as they were.

There are several role models for girls, but are there that many heroic role models for all humans, portrayed by females? And it’s hard to count revamped princesses produced by Disney Pixar into this category. The type of hero that is so canonical no one would even dream of questioning her. So straightforward  that little boys and girls both would look up to her. They may exist, but it’s not easy for me to come to think of one.

So little girls, when they crush on a hero have a mixed dilemma. Their brains need to bypass the issue of Robin Hood being a boy and themselves being girls. So they often get this mixed bag of heroic crush and mirror dream at the same time. You crush on the person you want to be.

Everybody may not work like this, but I did, and many of my friends did. Later on, in puberty, I had “normal” crushes as well, but those are different. You don’t necessarily want to be an aspect of that person, you mostly want that person to get it on with some worthy woman who will then playact an aspect of yourself. So, basically hero crush and romantic crush are apples and oranges – both fruit, but different.

To give an example; these are the heroes I hero crushed on – literary individuals I wanted to be rather than be with, and thus my brain created a bypass surgery for itself to make that possible in my daydreams:

Frodo from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Michael Strogoff from Jules Verne’s MIchael Strogoff

Robin Hood

Snufkin from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books

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Michale Strogoff was the man, a pity I didn’t have the actual cojones to be him

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And Snufkin, oh how I wanted to be Snufkin…

These were all characters that I had strong feelings for as a child, but not technically characters I wanted to romance. I wanted to be Michael Strogoff, brave and stoic courier of the Tsar! The 8 year old me playacted those adventures with my friends. And when we watched the old Anime Poenix 2772, we wanted to be Godo, not boink him, we wanted to be Jedi knights, not date them.

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Who wouldn’t want to be Godo…

This is what some guys who are not fathers of daughters still don’t get. We girls, don’t usually want to be the classical heroine damsel. We want to be the heroic  iconic hero, regardless of gender. Children are wired like that before they get brainwashed, they all want to be admirable and heroic, and they don’t get that some heroics are earmarked only for certain groups.

Then, when we’re older, we have romantic literary crushes, but we still have heroic crushes as well. For example, I had literary heroic crushes on these guys:

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

Alan Moore’s John Constantine

But I had romantic crushes on:

Tanith Lee’s Silver from The Silver Metal Lover

Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice

Joss Wedon’s Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Let’s face it, my best daydreamer Valentine’s date would probably be if I were a female John Constantine (rocking that trench coat!), who worked on the side as the brave courier of the Tsar and was going to destroy the ring of power at Mount Doom. I would then, in between doing all that, sit in a cozy tavern with a sulking Mr. Darcy glaring at me, a kindly Giles discussing books with me and a dashing Silver, playing his guitar for me.

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Imagine me like this, only cuter, non smoking and with a vagina!

 

Yeah, I think I’ll do just that tonight, in my dreams!

What literary people did you have a heroic or romantic crush on?

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day, may you bend it to your will and create whatever you want out of it!

 

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Take it away Silver, you’re still among my top 3 Valentine dates!

This fall has been a harsh one, the type of period in your life that strips you of many things you had hopes for or even took for granted, a pulverizer of dreams and obliterator of many previous efforts. I have never liked the type of people who try to redeem some semblance of control in the face of tragedy, by seeking reasons for it in various individuals or groups of people. Yes he died of Cancer, but did you *know* that he smoked for years…Yes it’s tragic that the people of Haiti suffered a horrible earthquake, but the country was so corrupt and ill prepared, that it’s no wonder they are sinking. All these attempts are just piss poor ways for the weak and the frightened to fake control over that which is not controllable. I know, because I’ve done it myself, only I do it to *myself*, and thankfully not so much to others.

The main thing that happened was that a flood hit Colorado and many people had property damaged or destroyed, there were even some deaths. We did not die, but we did lose all our furniture and suffered heavy damage to our home. And then the insurance company that had sold us our flood insurance hauled out a section in the contract and used it to not pay a dime to us. We are still fighting that, while renting rooms from a friend. We will not have a home for a long time, and we are poor now. There is no other word for it.

This and some other disappointments made me go over in my head what I could have done differently, over and over, in a futile semblance of getting retroactive control over something uncontrollable. The truth is, we did do most things right. We had insurance, we were honest and hard working, we didn’t screw anybody over, we just got screwed.

There are few things harder sometimes, than letting go, getting on with it and moving forward. It can be up there with forgiving the cruel or learning a new language. And it takes a lot of effort, dreary soul sucking effort of the type that makes the color of your everyday life that of old re-fried porridge. In hard, scary, dreary or sad parts of our life, I think many people like me, look for colors. Something which will take us through a particular and awful tunnel. I’ve heard some people on rather high horses say the word “escapism” with *that* tone. You know, the one that the Westboro Baptist Church uses on whole segments of humanity. Well, yes, it is escapism, made out of the same stuff that condescending people dreamed up their high horses from. I say it lovingly, because I seek it out to complement something that my soul is whispering to me that I need, to bring back color.

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When I was fairly young, I had a rough patch in life, and The Lord of the Rings brought me through it. To the dreary path then, the work of Tolkien added aspects of goodness and valor in life, and that tears were okay. Gandalf’s words are still very meaningful to me:

Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.

Everybody cries in those stories, strong men, grown women, heroes and wizards, everybody but those who are evil. Basically, if you can shed tears, there is hope for you, and tears never diminish acts of valor, and one favorite vala of mine from Tolkien’s work is Nienna, the one who weeps, and also the one who taught Gandalf compassion back in the undying lands.

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It’s okay to cry Sam, give us your best sob fest…

There have been other authors and books, hobbies, activities, films, series etc that have brought me through rough patches. Tove Jansson and her Moomin books were very important and shaped wistful melancholic magic into my everyday reflections. A friend told me that she got through growing up by watching Star Trek and Dr Who, and I can see how that could work.

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Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are for all ages, and deserve a post of their own, anybody who don’t know them is missing out.

I think these things that we seek out are far from random. If we need a gun to shoot things to pieces, our soul will lead us to zombie games, like it did for another friend when she was having a very very hard job, and she shot monsters to unwind. She and I did that a a few times together later in life too, for the same reasons. Another friend painted Warhammer miniature figurines to get him through all kinds of crap, not only was the act soothing, the game itself granted hours, sometimes days of immersed strategy and creativity.

Giving ourselves a break, or giving our soul what it needs for a specific situation is smart, and actually fairly crucial to get on in life. This time around, when I was sitting in various FEMA sponsored hotel rooms, being evacuated, and when we labored with the vast burden of paperwork for a cause that still seems lost, and dealing with other related or unrelated hurtful things that just seemed to come in a cluster on top of everything else, what gave me a break and brought some color to me were two things mainly:

Korean tv series and films

The two D&D games I’m in

The Korean tv series-theme started when a friend recommended “The Great Queen Seondeok” to me, a 62 episode long Korean historical costume drama. The high epic storytelling, the fascinating historical details from the kingdom of Silla in the 600’s blew me away. The main characters go through such vast spectrum of emotions – as I found out characters in most Korean dramas seem to do, when I investigated their film/tv culture further. To cry is quite okay in Korean drama, action or comedy. In fact, a story is kind of incomplete if nobody cries. So, I’ve read up on Korean history and culture, and fallen a little bit in love with it. How can you not like a culture where you can cry even when you are strong?

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Sweet sweet Korean tears…

And D&D..well, I’ve rpg’d most of my life, and in some parts it becomes more powerful and immersing than ever. I did a lot of White Wolf on line gaming one summer in the early 2000’s after a difficult happening, which it sort of helped me solve in my head. And now my D&D characters and their interactions and battles feel like something that’s helping me do other crap that I don’t really want to do. Both characters I play are very different, except for the fact that they have some tragedy in their backgrounds which flaws them, and makes them a little bit crazy and broken. Playing out that can often lead to silly situations and misunderstandings, and that too, is cathartic. Previously in my life I’ve often played comical characters, but my current attraction to the tragicomic is crystal clear and logical to me.

If I slay this dragon, it will be through the combination of pathetic tears, rough jokes and a big bastard sword.

What kind of stuff gets you through a bad patch and makes you able to slay your beasts?

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I shall rise from the ashes…maybe?

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Dr Who inspired tee shirt print by Karen Hallion

I am a Dr Who fan, and yes, I did read about the new doctor a few days ago, and no, I never did expect to have a female doctor, or a black doctor or a gay doctor. And I mean EVER, when it comes to a female Doctor. Not because Dr Who is a bigoted show, but because Dr Who is something else, far far more cemented in its stereotype than bigotry. Dr Who is a concept which (in modern times – as in the 3 most recent doctors) has tapped into a female fan base (although there are male fans too, obviously) with compelling strings and pulls which are, let’s be honest, not so greatly different from classical female romance development novel tricks.

This is not all that Dr Who is, but it is a very prominent trait, and the money making winning concept for many fans. I’m sure I’ll get some enemies by saying that Edward and Bella in Twilight have several things in common with the Doctor and his companion, but there it is, and I’ll stand by it.

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Heey Bella, won’t you come away with me? I’ll show you marvelous things few humans have ever seen before…I’m also very old, and have experienced stuff, and for some reason you are very special me.

 

Let’s start with why there will never be a female doctor. Steven Moffat will tell us such vague reasons as A female doctor just didn’t feel right – which is, as we used to say back home on the ranch, horseshit.

What good old Steven cannot say openly is that Dr Who would drop in ratings, more to the point, in female viewer ratings, if there were to be a female Doctor. For many viewers, Dr Who is not about female bonding, one female reflected through the eyes of another (be it all powerful and timelordy) female is not alluring. That is poor money, kids. Big money, since the beginning of popular and trash culture, is to have a female (often young) character reflected through the eyes of a powerful (and often attractive) male character. And the voyage for many female viewers is to see how that reflection develops and changes in a positive direction over time. Gravy on the turkey is to have the mysterious powerful male character show aspects of himself that are not easily shown otherwise, through the charm and wisdom of the girl in the story.

Now that is money! Mix in some plots and sometimes decent story archs, some charming British humor and perhaps  some attractive female with full lips, and you’ve got yourself all kinds of viewers, but make no mistake, if you take away the ingredient which I’m referring to here, you will also lose many viewers.

Recently there has been a line of tees from Threadless, inspired by Dr Who. The shirts are created by Karen Hallion and show Disney princesses who get invited to be taken away by the Doctor in the Tardis.  While these tees are cute, the artist at the same time taps into exactly the phenomena with Dr Who and his companions and female fan base, which makes it impossible for there to ever be a female Doctor.

For me, Dr Who is just as much, if not more, about the companion than about the Doctor. It took me a while to admit it. Perhaps this has a little to do with the fact that the only Doctor I even would consider half decently attractive, was Christopher Eccleston – not that I didn’t like some of the others, mind you. But the companion…ah, there is somebody who could make or break the show for me. I really want an individual here, and not a stereotype, but quite often, the female companion touches dangerously near the stereotype of The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. The article in the link here (written by an ex-manic pixie dreamgirl) has many points in explaining how culture often makes women dangerously satisfied in being sidekicks, because they are such charming and important sidekicks, you know. They even reference Dr Who in the piece, I recommend reading it.

Now, I will say it again. I actually am a Dr Who fan. I love many things about the show, and I don’t mind the female being the sidekick, but it is crucially important to me, that she is, in that aspect, as little of a stereotyped and as individualistically a human as humanely possible.

I don’t really care what the Doctor thinks of her, I care what I think of her. And so far there have only been two companions whom I really dug, and who I can say did completely avoid stereotyping cliches.  These two are Martha and Donna. (Disclaimer: I love, love older and mature Sarah Jane, but I’m not sure she counts in this category)

Let me just say that I think that all actresses who played companions have done fine jobs in portraying the characters that they were given. Just because I felt Rose to be a cheerleaderish cliche who was valued on some fairly scant merits, does not mean that I don’t think Billie Piper isn’t a great actress. The flaw is always in how they are written. Remember, it is irrelevant to me what the timelord dude thinks of the damsel. I am the timelord of my own life, and if I don’t like what the wench delivers, I won’t cut her slack because she is cute or a bit sassy.

It’s not very hard to qualify why you love Donna Noble as a companion. You either love her or hate her, and if you hate her, you usually still understand why some love her, and vice versa. She didn’t fit any stereotype out there, Donna just was her own goddamn character, and that was it, as natural as the glands on a skunk. And I believe firmly, as a fan, that someone like the Doctor, needs a Donna now and again, much more than he would need ten Rose Walkers or Amy Ponds. Donna on the other hand, never needed the Doctor. She was just in it for the ride, and few rides have been better than the one that the Doctor had with Donna. In many aspects, Donna cemented modern Dr Who for me, and it’s been hard for the show to live up to those standards since.

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Donna will always rock your ship, whether you love it or just get seasick…

 

When it comes to Martha Jones, the story goes a little differently…

I had endured two seasons with Rose Walker as a companion, with very mixed feelings. I found the show charming, I liked both Eccleston’s and Tennant’s doctors and some of the story archs…but the whole Rose thing had started to grate on me. For me, the character of Rose was constantly underwhelming. I so so wanted her to do something surprising, but she always did exactly what I anticipated. I actually loved Rose’s mom much more, now she would have been an interesting companion!

So, Rose was squared away in a parallel dimension, their undying love could never be, yadda yadda sob sob. (I breathed a sigh of relief, finally a new chapter!) And along comes Martha…

Martha was young and beautiful, but that’s where all the similarities with previous companions ended. She was very very far from a manic pixie dreamgirl. Martha was the opposite of manic, she was actually something as unusual (in a scifi tv show)  as pensive. She was intellectual and whip smart, but also calmer and a bit more brooding than your usual companion. You’d think the damn Doctor could appreciate something as new and fresh as that, but no. Never has the doctor found as many faults with a companion, or been as cold toward a companion as he was to Martha Jones. And why? Well..it probably wasn’t because she is black – although, I did see a black Dr Who fan-blogger lose her shit over the whole treatment of Martha Jones, back in those days, and with good reason. Finally a non-white companion, and that’s the one who gets the cold treatment??

Faster than a toddler blows out birthday candles, all the female fans who dug Rose (and I’m guessing most of these gals are white, just a wild guess here..), came to the defense of the Doctor’s treatment of Martha. Of course it’s not bigotry! The Doctor had just been on the ending part of a very super special sensitive petal love story with super special wonderful Rose. Therefore he must be a douchebag to the black girl who falls in love with him.

Hmm..I’m not sure I’ve ever forgiven the Doctor for how he treated Martha. No one asked for another love story, I frankly don’t need love stories in Dr Who more often than at most once a decade..but there was such a lack of kindness in his treatment of Martha, in moments where she did incredibly hard things. Yeah, if it wasn’t for the Doctor digging Donna later, I’d probably have dumped his scrawny ass, as a fan. But let me explain why I ended up loving one of the Doctor’s least popular companions from very early on. It falls into the concept of Martha seemingly starting off as a (in modern times) fairly obscure archetype, and then growing far above and beyond that concept.

Unhappy love, and the female or male protagonist who suffered it, was an archetype which was embraced in earlier eras more than today. The last golden era for the unhappily-in-love archetype was in the late 18th century and through the 19th century. Young Werther and his sufferings, and so forth. It’s an archetype which can differ fairly much, depending on story, but the stoic suffering is still compelling, whether we agree with the character or not. A good Werther is a good Werther, he or she is not overly dramatic (in spite of the original’s disposition), they inspire empathy and sometimes even admiration, because those that admire a good Werther, dare to admit that we could all be on the receiving end of heartache. We can all be losers in love, most of us have been on one point or other.

Remember the Little Mermaid, by H.C. Andersen? And I do not mean that happy-ending awful Disney version, I mean the real fairy tale mermaid, in the original story. Now there’s a Werther worth her salt! The things that little fishtail gal endures would make a modern day woman flip her shit. Much harder than being an action hero and blowing things up. The story dares to go where few stories go today, with our obsession with chicken soup for the soul and happy endings. The story ends badly and she dies. I mean..she joins a cool wind-sprite gang after death, but the chick does not get love, in spite of saving that prince’s ass, period.

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The Little Mermaid as she was supposed to be, Disney could learn a thing or two from H C Andersen and Edmund Dulac.

That’s right kids. Love is not a human entitlement, in spite of what self help classes taught us, and if more stories would prepare us for that, we’d be wiser and perhaps more gracious.

So, a theory I have about Martha not being very well liked by many female fans, is that when you look at Martha, you see all your own losses in love. You cannot ever mirror yourself in the Doctor’s fondness and admiration through Martha, because the Doctor looks at Martha with unease, pity and an unusual coldness. What an anticlimax! And she stays! Because the fool has feelings for the doctor, how dare she, after Rose!

Yes, Martha dared. She dared having impractical feelings. She dared sticking to them and saving the doctor, when she had no gratitude at all for it, just contempt. Martha saved the world you know. She isn’t the only companion who saved the world, but I dare say that no companion had such a lonely and thankless journey in saving it, as Martha did. A weaker woman would have kicked it all to the curb, but because she stood by her feelings and didn’t “get over them” forcefully, the world was saved. And what did the Doctor do?

Well kids.. the show isn’t bigoted at all..but the doctor did fall in love once more after Rose. He fell in love with another pasty white woman, while Martha stood by watching (trying to get the Doctor’s memory back for him, as he had lost it). And the pasty woman he fell in love with was actually pretty outspokenly racist. Ahem…

Yeah, there are a lot of…interesting aspects to analyze in the Martha Jones story arch, for people of color, I am not one to deny it.

But I love love the character of Martha Jones. She suffers in such a great way without being  a martyr for a second. She is honest and brave, and goddamnit I would’t mind being a Martha when I grow up, she’s a great role model. In the episodes where the Doctor is a human man with no timelord memories, and they are trapped in the early 20th century and Martha is a maid, that is where Martha is THE little mermaid. She has the same valor. Just watch that arch again, and see what I mean!

And after Martha saves the world in spite of her heartache, she decides to get over the Doctor. But she never deserted him when he, or the world needed her. She does what a true hero does, she fixes the problem first. And that thoughtful gleam in the Doctor’s eyes when she leaves him, I hope to god he was man enough for that to be regret.

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Martha saves the world, while having a fully righteous depression.

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One day you are totally cool with Aslan, but then….

 

A protagonist archetype that is very powerful, whether you like them or not, is The Tarnished Hero – a sub category under the anti-hero protagonist group, although a little different from the more classical anti hero.  The tarnished hero often starts off as a decent enough character, sometimes even as a true hero and then falls completely from grace by doing something which is impossible to overlook. The misconduct can sometimes be so jarring that it changes your whole perspective of the character and the story. A classic example would be when Thomas Covenant – the Savior of the “Land” in Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy series, commits rape, whilst in a state of deep confusion and shock, but nevertheless an atrocious act. The reader has to follow Thomas the Unbeliever through many books, and because Donaldson isn’t a psychologically lazy author for one moment , the protagonist – whether you end up sympathizing with him or not, is ultimately believable as a character.

The dualism of a tarnished hero is very compelling on both writers and audience, anyone having experienced the classical hero, even the classical anti hero into oversaturation, will feel the excitement for complex shades of gray and dark personality shadows and secret undertones. Contrasts can be wonderful when they work – but to make them work you have to strike the exact right tone, and you cannot ever be a lazy writer. Lazy writing is almost always the reason for a failed tarnished hero.

Whenever a tarnished hero is created by sloppy writing, there is always some controversy, even if many who examine and debate the problem may not put the finger on why exactly the story isn’t believable.  One such example of a tarnished hero who completely falls from grace via some very underwhelming writing by an otherwise strong writer, is CS Lewis’ Susan Pevensie. Susan starts off as one of four child heroes, saving the magical land of Narnia more than once. She is beautiful, kind hearted and fair minded – while not perfect, which none of the children are, she is still firmly rooted among the top hero protagonists in several books of the Narnia series, earning the name “Queen Susan the Kind”.

When Lewis then gathers all the child heroes in “The Last Battle” – the last installment of the Narnia series, as they are about to get their reward and enter Aslan’s Kingdom, Susan is not among her friends and siblings. The only explanation ever given for this are a few meager sentences, one by her brother Peter, saying that “she is no friend of Narnia anymore”, one by Polly, who claims that Susan only values lipstick, parties and nylons nowadays, and Eustace’s fill in that Susan does not want to talk about Narnia. Suffice to say, this type of storytelling created a lot of problems for the analytical reader. What did Susan do to get such a harsh judgment as to be left by the wayside? Numerous literary essays have been written about this topic; feminists have made a case for sexism, Philip Pullman even felt inspired to write his Dark Materials series as a response – because he interpreted it as Susan being punished for reaching sexual maturity. Christian defenders of CS Lewis argue furiously that everybody is flawed in Lewis’ books, and that it certainly had nothing to do with Susan’s gender. But they fail to answer why Susan is made an example in such a horribly definitive way, when other characters who are spiteful and even commit outright treason, get complete forgiveness. And what’s more, we get to follow these characters as readers on their road to forgiveness, thus understanding what happens. Not so with Susan, we don’t understand, not a single one of us, not even, I’m prepared to claim, all those Christian Lewis-apologists, who construct convoluted reasons for why Susan was written in such a way in The Last Battle. We may not need to accuse Lewis of sexism, perhaps it wasn’t sexism at all, we’ll never truly know – but we do know deep in our hearts that this was criminally lazy writing. And whatever Lewis was trying to convey, the point will never be clear. In poetry, the most common advice for novice poets, given by masters, is to show instead of tell a scene, in the way of writing. Well, Lewis barely bothered to even tell us when it came to the case of Susan Pevensie, and he didn’t show us anything.

Let’s not forget that Susan was, along with Lucy, a very special Pevensie. She was one of only two people who chose to stay close to Aslan when he fell and rose again, and was allowed to ride on his back. One day literally embraced by the divine, the next day not valuing any of that at all anymore, and because of what, hormones and vanity? Falling from that which is great and wonderful, or getting estranged from it, could certainly happen, but the road to such estrangement would be complex and interesting, particularly if the character doing so was a worthwhile one to begin with, which is a conditional setting for this dilemma altogether, after all, who wants to read about a horrible person who turns out to become…an even more horrible person?

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Yo bitch, nylons or paradise? Why you so shallow?

 

The reason why this endeavor often fails, even for otherwise good writers such as CS Lewis, is laziness, lazy writing and thinking –  or perhaps rather, an inability to understand just how much labor it takes to make it hold.

All of us who were Star Wars fans waited with such eagerness for the second trilogy, and I for one, along with many others did it for two main reasons:

1. To witness the grand era of the Jedi order and see all their awesomeness.
2. To finally witness the fall from grace of the once good Anakin Skywalker becoming the dreaded galactic psychopath Darth Vader.

I mean, come on, where else could we get to see such an epic case study of a tarnished hero?

Well, as is well known, I and many others were bitterly disappointed.  Not only did we get to see far too little of jedi awesomeness (and for us girls, there was an extra sting in noticing that the female jedis were glimpsed only in a few scenes and never had any lines. You apparently have  zero to contribute if you have ovaries and a lightsaber), but also, Anakin’s path from…eh..good (?) to psychopathically bad would mostly consist of affecting kids between the ages of 4-10.  Again, show,  don’t tell us that Anakin is a good guy. All we see, all that is shown in the damn movies is this creepy sulky model-like guy in black who is constantly pissy because he isn’t given the “credit he deserves” on the goddamn jedi council. He does not show a single bone of kindness in the movies, he has not a smidgeon of patience (even when his kind and honorable master tells him that in time, he will end up on the jedi council, he’s only 22 for shit’s sake..) and his skills on such traits that signify a jedi , like for instance calm reflection and unemotional analysis are shown in the movies to be far below average. How did this guy even become a jedi? That question is asked by many mature Star Wars fans fairly early on in the Attack of the Clones.  Is it just because he can lift heavy stuff with his mind and is so awesome at lazer fencing? If that’s all that it takes to become a jedi, we may as well all dream about being Sith lords instead, because there is little difference to begin with.

So, a problematic and simplistic character to begin with, is told (but not shown) to the audience to be “a good man”. All we ever see him doing is showing bad mood swings, lustily pawing Padme and fighting in action scenes. Call me old fashioned, but the way I was taught, there is much more to being good than that. What I saw was an unstable and immature guy, whom I’d never want to go out and grab a beer with – because you just know how much of a drag he would be. You see this character getting it on with a female character who started out strong and showed signs of some brains and maturity (she’s after all the only one who even notices democracy dying in the old republic), and then…inexplicably she falls for this manchild. Really? If she had some kind of jedi fetish, Obi Wan was standing right there, and he didn’t seem to suffer from borderline personality disorder!

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I’m GOOD you know..totally a good man, won’t you buy a car from me? Or put me on the Jedi Council?

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Ooops, I don’t know what went wrong, but suddenly I murdered a whole kindergarten!

 

Rants aside, it takes Anakin, like five bloody minutes to switch from being a “good man” (whining, sulking and secretly sexing Padme) to murdering the master of the Jedi order, slaughtering a whole kindergarten of small kids (!) and trying to strangle Padme, who was blamed for him falling to the dark side in the first place (women, they always mess shit up for the true masters, lol!)

Even without my rightfully vitriolic analysis of Anakin’s “personality”, and even if some would find him to be a lovely human being wile pouting and sulking, it is hard to not admit that his fall from grace went..awfully fast, almost as if he was ripe for picking. But why was he ripe for picking? Why is Anakin so weak and unconvincing to so many viewers?

We’ll never know, because the script writing was just that sloppy. Imagine how glorious the films could have been if we would have been allowed to see a truly good Anakin, portrayed in a nuanced way, and witnessed his struggling path down the drain. We would have cried, we would have kissed Lucas’ feet. But now, his feet will be forever unkissed, and many, many toys were sold instead.

 

Who are your favorite Tarnished Heroes, characters who fall from grace, come crashing down and yet evoke sympathy, and sometimes rise from the ashes?

 

Here are some of mine:

Morgaine in CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine Cycle

Darth Vader (in the Return of the Jedi – pre Anakin Skywalker fiasco)

Jamie and Tyrion Lannister in The Books of Ice and Fire

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

ETA: There are two really good pieces written to fill in the gaps on the problem of Lewis’ character Susan Pevensie, if you are interested in further reading, my suggestions are:
Ursula Vernon’s Elegant and Fine
Neil Gaiman’s The Problem of Susan

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