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Archive for July, 2013

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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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