MEROPE GAUNT, MADRE DE VOLDEMORT: LA NARRATIVA COMO CASTILLO DE NAIPES

La primera novela sobre la serie Harry Potter de J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, fue publicada por Bloomsbury el 26 de junio de 1997, hace 25 años hoy mismo. Esta entrada mira hacia esa fecha del pasado, para festejarla, y apunta hacia el prĂłximo mes de noviembre, cuando finalmente volverĂĄ el Witch Market de Barcelona y todos nosotros, los Potterheads locales, tendremos la oportunidad de reencontrarnos despuĂ©s de un parĂ©ntesis de dos años causado por la Covid-19. He elegido dar una conferencia en ese evento sobre la madre de Voldemort, Merope Gaunt, porque es un ejemplo de ese tipo de personaje secundario que parece muy menor pero cuyas acciones son indispensables para que una historia comience a moverse. Si la pobre Merope no se hubiera enamorado del Muggle Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort nunca habrĂ­a nacido. El villano, no el hĂ©roe, pone en marcha los acontecimientos y, por lo tanto, sin el Señor Oscuro, el joven Harry Potter habrĂ­a disfrutado de la adolescencia normal de un mago cualquiera.

Merope (pronunciado ‘mɛrəpiː, o mĂ©ropi) lleva el nombre de una estrella en las PlĂ©yades que toma prestado su apodo de una de las siete hijas de la ninfa oceĂĄnica Pleione y el TitĂĄn Atlas. Solo aparece en el sexto libro, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), publicado ocho años despuĂ©s de la primera novela, lapso que sugiere que Rowling puede haber pensado en la historia de los orĂ­genes de Voldemort relativamente tarde en el proceso de escritura, no necesariamente desde el principio. La triste historia de Merope se narra en el capĂ­tulo 10, “The House of Gaunt” (184-204, Bloomsbury 2005 ediciĂłn de tapa dura), y en el capĂ­tulo 13, “The Secret Riddle” (242-260), aunque ninguno de los dos capĂ­tulos se centra en ella. Su nombre se menciona un total de 32 veces, muy pocas en el contexto de la extensa narrativa que es toda la serie, y ella nunca estĂĄ en diĂĄlogo con ningĂșn otro personaje. Sabemos de Merope porque el Profesor Dumbledore procede a recordar escenas del pasado compartiendo su Pensieve con Harry, habiendo decidido, como le dice al chico, “que es hora, ahora que sabes lo que llevĂł a Lord Voldemort a tratar de matarte hace quince años, de que se te dĂ© cierta informaciĂłn” (186).

Dumbledore no tiene recuerdos directos de Merope, por lo que utiliza en su lugar los recuerdos del difunto Bob Ogden, un funcionario del Departamento de Aplicación de la Ley Mågica. Harry es testigo de la visita de Odgen al pueblo de Little Hangleton, donde viven los Gaunt: el padre de mediana edad Marvolo, el hijo Morfin (posiblemente veinteañero) y la hija Merope, que tiene dieciocho años como averiguamos mås tarde. Los Gaunts se presentan como el equivalente inglés de los hillbillies estadounidenses (unos paletos), y Morfin, de hecho, da una bienvenida bastante violenta a su imprevisto visitante, enviado por Slughorn para investigar una violación de la ley mågica cometida por el joven.

Cuando Merope aparece por primera vez, en un rincĂłn de su muy pobre vivienda, Rowling la describe focalizando la narraciĂłn a travĂ©s de Harry como “una chica cuyo vestido gris harapiento era del color exacto de la sucia pared de piedra tras ella. Estaba de pie junto a una olla humeante sobre una negra y sucia cocina, y jugueteaba con el estante de ollas y sartenes de aspecto miserable sobre la misma. Su cabello era lacio y opaco y tenĂ­a una cara lisa, pĂĄlida y bastante pesada. Sus ojos, como los de su hermano, miraban en direcciones opuestas. Ella parecĂ­a un poco mĂĄs limpia que los dos hombres, pero Harry pensĂł que nunca habĂ­a visto a una persona de aspecto mĂĄs derrotado” (194, cursivas añadida). Cuando la nerviosa y callada Merope deja caer una olla, su padre la riñe como ha hecho muchas veces: “¿para quĂ© sirve tu varita, inĂștil saco de lodo?” (194). Ante el rapapolvo la chica no consigue arreglar la olla, asĂ­ que Odgen la repara, deseando terminar la escena lo mĂĄs rĂĄpido posible.

Cuando el visitante declara que Morfin ha sido llamado al Ministerio porque ha atacado a un Muggle, Marvolo reacciona gritando que su familia es descendiente directa de Salazar Slytherin, uno de los fundadores de Hogwarts, y se le debe mås respeto. Como prueba, empuja a Merope de modo brutal, para que Odgen pueda ver el medallón que lleva puesto. Esta reliquia familiar, que luego ella vende para evitar perecer de hambre, es la misma que su hijo adulto Tom, entonces de unos treinta años, encuentra en manos de la rica coleccionista Hepzibah Smith. Cuando la asesina en un ataque de ira (su primer asesinato después de acabar con su padre y sus abuelos, a los dieciséis años), necesita huir, comenzando así su camino para convertirse en Lord Voldemort.

En el capĂ­tulo 10, un grupo de transeĂșntes Muggles pijos se burlan de la ruinosa casa de los Gaunt, angustiando a Merope. Ella se pone mortalmente pĂĄlida cuando el guapo Tom Riddle se burla de Morfin y ambos hermanos lo escuchan llamar a su compañera Cecilia “querida”. Sin ningĂșn cariño Morfin le dice a Merope (que aĂșn no ha dicho una palabra): “AsĂ­ que al final no te quiso para nada” (198) y le revela a su enojado padre que “A esta le gusta mirar a ese Muggle” (199, cursiva original). Esto horroriza a Marvolo, y aunque Merope, niega la acusaciĂłn de Morfin aĂșn sin decir palabra, solo la intervenciĂłn providencial de Ogden la salva de ser estrangulada por su padre. Pronuncia entonces los primeros sonidos que salen de su boca, aunque estos son gritos. El guapo Tom Riddle, como es fĂĄcil de adivinar, es el mismo Muggle que Morfin ha atacado, creyendo errĂłneamente que correspondĂ­a el interĂ©s de su hermana.

Dumbledore le dice a Harry que tanto Morfin como Marvolo fueron detenidos de inmediato y enviados a Azkaban, un tiempo de libertad para Merope durante el cual floreciĂł su magia hasta ahora reprimida. Usando, como Harry adivina, un elixir de amor que, segĂșn especula Dumbledore, “le habrĂ­a parecido mĂĄs romĂĄntico” (202) que un maleficio Imperius, Merope seduce a Tom Riddle y ambos se fugan juntos, ante el gran escĂĄndalo de su pueblo. El padre, retornado de Azkaban despuĂ©s de seis meses, finalmente muere del disgusto.

SegĂșn cotillea Dumbledore Merope le habĂ­a mentido a Riddle fingiendo que estaba embarazada, suceso que solo ocurriĂł tres meses despuĂ©s de su boda. Riddle, no obstante, regresĂł a casa sin su esposa antes de que ella diera a luz, alegando que habĂ­a sido “engañado” (202). Dumbledore continĂșa su “conjetura” (203) sugiriendo que Merope “quien estaba profundamente enamorada de su esposo, no podĂ­a soportar seguir esclavizĂĄndolo por medios mĂĄgicos. Creo que ella tomĂł la decisiĂłn de dejar de darle la pĂłcima. Tal vez, enamorada como estaba, se habĂ­a convencido de que Ă©l ya se habrĂ­a enamorado de ella para entonces. Tal vez ella pensĂł que Ă©l se quedarĂ­a por el bien del bebĂ©. Si es asĂ­, se equivocĂł en ambos aspectos. La dejĂł, nunca la volviĂł a ver y nunca se preocupĂł por descubrir quĂ© fue de su hijo” (203). Este pasaje marca el final de la presencia de Merope en el capĂ­tulo 10 y explica por quĂ© el niño Tom llegĂł a odiar a su padre Muggle tan intensamente, aunque nunca amĂł realmente a su madre de sangre pura.

En el capĂ­tulo 13 Dumbledore usa de nuevo el Pensieve para narrar los problemas de Merope una vez en Londres. A travĂ©s de los recuerdos de un tal Caractacus Burke, Harry ve a Merope vendiendo el medallĂłn; ella estaba “Cubierta de harapos y bastante avanzada …”, es decir, a punto de parir (245). Por si esta escena no fuera ya lo bastante Dickensiana, Rowling añade que sucediĂł antes de Navidad (supuestamente en 1926). Cuando Harry pregunta por quĂ© la desesperada Merope no usĂł sus poderes, Dumbledore especula que “cuando su esposo la abandonĂł, Merope dejĂł de usar magia. No creo que ella quisiera seguir siendo bruja. Por supuesto, tambiĂ©n es posible que su amor no correspondido y la desesperaciĂłn concomitante minaran sus poderes; eso puede suceder. En cualquier caso, como estĂĄs a punto de ver, Merope se negĂł a levantar su varita incluso para salvar su propia vida” (246).

Misteriosamente (un poco como Amidala en Star Wars), Merope se deja morir despuĂ©s del nacimiento de su bebĂ©. Harry estĂĄ horrorizado de que Merope no eligiera “vivir para su hijo” (246) y Dumbledore responde que, a diferencia de Lily Potter que muriĂł para salvar a su bebĂ© Harry de Voldemort, Merope Riddle “eligiĂł la muerte a pesar de un hijo que la necesitaba, pero no la juzgues con demasiada severidad, Harry. Estaba muy debilitada por el largo sufrimiento y nunca tuvo el coraje de tu madre” (246). Cuando Dumbledore recupera su primer recuerdo de Tom Riddle, Rowling escribe focalizando a travĂ©s de Ă©l que “No habĂ­a rastro de los Gaunts en la cara de Tom Riddle. Merope habĂ­a satisfecho su Ășltimo deseo: era su apuesto padre en miniatura, alto para sus once años, de pelo oscuro y pĂĄlido” (249). Solo puede saber este dato gracias a la Sra. Cole, la directora del orfanato, quien informa que Merope llegĂł en la vĂ­spera de Año Nuevo “tambaleĂĄndose por los escalones” en una “noche desagradable” de frĂ­o y nieve (249). Ella “tuvo al bebĂ© una hora mĂĄs tarde. Y muriĂł al cabo de otra hora” (249). La Sra. Cole confirma que Merope, quien “no era una belleza”, tuvo tiempo de decir “Espero que se parezca a su papá” (249), las Ășnicas palabras que pronuncia, y de pedir que el bebĂ© se llame Tom Marvolo Riddle. La Sra. Cole asume que la joven “venĂ­a de un circo” (249) debido al extraño nombre; el apellido Riddle (o ‘enigma’), por cierto, existe.

Muchos comentaristas han expresado su sorpresa de que Rowling use a Oliver Twist “no como modelo para su hĂ©roe sino para el villano, creando, en esencia, un Oliver retorcido” con el Señor Oscuro (ver James Washick, “Oliver Twisted: The Origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan”, Looking Glass 13.3 (2009), https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/165/164). En Oliver Twist (1837-38) de Dickens, el bebĂ© Oliver nace de la joven Agnes Fleming, que muere en el parto, en una workhouse o asilo para pobres donde se crĂ­a como huĂ©rfano.

Agnes, la hija de diecisiete años de un oficial de la Marina, queda embarazada de Edwin Leeford, un hombre que posiblemente le dobla la edad, y que estĂĄ huyendo de la rica mujer entrada en años con quien su padre lo habĂ­a obligado a casarse. Leeford muere enfermo sin poder transmitir a Agnes y a su bebĂ© aĂșn no nacido la fortuna heredada de su padre, una muerte pensada para caracterizarlo como un buen tipo atrapado entre el poder patriarcal de su difunto padre y la pura mala suerte. Sin embargo, encuentro que su affair con la hija inocente del hombre que lo alberga es un abuso criminal. Cuando Agnes muere lleva una alianza de boda, lo que siempre me ha hecho sospechar que Leeford la engaña para que crea que es libre de casarse con ella. En cualquier caso, aunque Merope y Agnes estĂĄn conectadas, Dickens termina su novela reivindicando a Agnes, con Oliver visitando su tumba (que ya dejado de ser anĂłnima), mientras que al psicĂłpata Tom Riddle nunca le importa Merope.

AsĂ­ como Oliver Twist depende de la atracciĂłn sexual que Leeford siente por Agnes, todo Harry Potter depende de la pasiĂłn de la feucha Merope por su apuesto vecino Muggle Tom Riddle. No descarto que esta pasiĂłn haya sido despertada en compensaciĂłn por el abuso sexual que Merope sufre tanto por parte de su padre como de su hermano (el ataque de Morfin contra Tom insinĂșa la existencia de celos incestuosos), aunque solo Rowling sabe si hay motivos para esta especulaciĂłn. Si Merope hubiera sido hermosa, Riddle podrĂ­a haberse enamorado naturalmente de ella y tal vez incluso haberse quedado a su lado. Esto no necesariamente habrĂ­a resultado en una personalidad diferente para su bebĂ©, porque quiĂ©n sabe por quĂ© algunos hombres crecen para ser villanos horrendos, pero el hecho es que todo el castillo de naipes que es la heptalogĂ­a de Harry Potter depende de la atracciĂłn de Merope por Riddle. No lo llamo amor, porque teniendo en cuenta cĂłmo Merope ha vivido su vida hasta entonces, ella no puede conocer el significado del amor. En ausencia de una madre que podrĂ­a haberla amado, tampoco puede entender el significado de la maternidad, de ahĂ­ su incapacidad para vincularse con su bebĂ©, y su muerte, que es una especie de suicidio.

Rowling podría haber inventado una historia muy diferente para explicar el nacimiento de Voldemort, pero se le ocurrió el patético romance entre Merope Gaunt y Tom Riddle, narrado utilizando un curioso tipo de caracterización indirecta para la pareja, a quien nunca se ve (ni se escucha) juntos. Son en muchos sentidos la contrapartida de Lily y James Potter, los amorosos padres de Harry, aunque, sobre todo, Merope es lo opuesto a Lily. Tanto James como Lily mueren protegiendo a Harry de Voldemort, pero la muerte de Lily le da al niño la protección mågica adicional que le salva la vida. En contraste, el momento mås amargo del joven Tom llega cuando aprende la verdad sobre sus orígenes de boca de su tío Morfin. Este descubrimiento literalmente le rompe el alma una vez procede, como he señalado, a ejecutar al padre que lo abandonó y a sus abuelos. De manera reveladora, comete estos crímenes no porque los Riddle despreciaran a Merope, por quien nunca se preocupa, sino porque su sangre Muggle mancha su propia sangre, que él creía pura.

Pobre Merope, jamĂĄs amada como hija, hermana, esposa y madre. No olvidemos, sin embargo, que los peores hijos pueden provenir de las mejores madres, y que si el pequeño Tom Riddle resulta ser malvado, no es culpa de Merope. DirĂ­a que la culpa es, mĂĄs bien, del padre insensible, pero Tom Riddle senior es tema para otra entrada…

Publico una entrada una vez a la semana (me puedes seguir en @SaraMartinUAB). ÂĄLos comentarios son muy bienvenidos! Te puedes descargar los volĂșmenes anuales aquĂ­: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. La versiĂłn en inglĂ©s del blog estĂĄ disponible en https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/en/. EncontrarĂĄs en mi web informaciĂłn sobre mis publicaciones y actividades: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

LA CIENCIA FICCIÓN MÁS ALLÁ DEL TERRITORIO ANGLÓFONO: EL CASO CATALÁN

Este fin de semana he estado participando en la IV CatCon o convenciĂłn catalana sobre ciencia ficciĂłn y fantasĂ­a, celebrada como las tres primeras en la encantadora localidad costera de Vilanova i la GeltrĂș, a unos 50 km. al sur de Barcelona. CatCon reĂșne a fans y escritores, y tambiĂ©n es el evento durante el cual se otorga el premio Ictineu. CatCon estĂĄ organizada por la Societat Catalana de CiĂšncia-FicciĂł i Fantasia, fundada en 1997, y tuvo su primera ediciĂłn cero durante la Eurocon 2016, celebrada aquĂ­ en Barcelona.

Para esta ediciĂłn, propuse una mesa redonda sobre el estado actual de la ciencia ficciĂłn catalana, tratando de averiguar si se trata de una botella medio llena o medio vacĂ­a. Durante mi intervenciĂłn en la CatCon 2018 hice algunos comentarios sobre un texto de una autora, Montserrat Segura, que casualmente estaba en la sala, y esto provocĂł una conversaciĂłn sobre lo que la universidad podrĂ­a hacer por los autores catalanes de ciencia ficciĂłn. LogrĂ© convencer a mi colega del Departamento de FilologĂ­a Catalana de la UAB, VĂ­ctor MartĂ­nez-Gil, de que habĂ­a que legitimar acadĂ©micamente una tradiciĂłn literaria que comenzĂł en la dĂ©cada de 1870 y que ahora se encuentra en un momento particularmente rico. Decidimos, asĂ­ pues, publicar un nĂșmero monogrĂĄfico en una revista acadĂ©mica que sirviera para presentar a los autores actualmente indispensables, para lo cual hicimos una selecciĂłn de siete: Antoni MunnĂ©-JordĂ , Jordi de Manuel, Montserrat GalĂ­cia, Carme Torras, Marc Pastor y Enric Herce (aunque lamento mucho no haber incluido a Salvador Macip). Luego VĂ­ctor reclutĂł a cuatro especialistas mĂĄs en Literatura Catalana (Francesc Foguet, Maria Dasca, Jordi Marrugat y Toni Maestre), y escribimos una propuesta. Un poco a la brava, decidimos contactar con la revista acadĂ©mica de estudios catalanes mejor valorada, la Catalan Review, y para nuestro alivio y felicidad su editor Bill Viestenz acogiĂł nuestra propuesta con gusto. Algo ayudĂł que estuviera familiarizado con mi traducciĂłn al inglĂ©s de Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974) de Manuel de Pedrolo como Typescript of the Second Origin (2018).

Las galeradas del nĂșmero monogrĂĄfico llegaron la semana pasada (se publicarĂĄ en julio) justo a punto para la mesa redonda, a la cual invitĂ© a Antoni MunnĂ©-JordĂ , Carme Torras, Eloi Puig y Jordi Marrugat. MunnĂ©-JordĂ  no solo es un gran autor de ciencia ficciĂłn sino tambiĂ©n la persona que mĂĄs sabe de este gĂ©nero y de fantasĂ­a en catalĂĄn. Fue director de dos colecciones clave de sf (para las editoriales Pleniluni y PagĂšs), fue tambiĂ©n uno de los cofundadores de la Societat Catalana de CiĂšncia FicciĂł i Fantasia, y mantiene la asombrosa bibliografĂ­a de obras (1873-2021) que se puede descargar desde el sitio web de la Societat. Ha publicado mĂĄs de veinte volĂșmenes, entre los que mencionarĂ© MichelĂ­ada (2015), ganadora del Ictineu. Carme Torras, es una investigadora de renombre internacional en el campo de la robĂłtica asistencial y autora destacada, conocida por sus novelas ganadoras del premio Ictineu La mutaciĂł sentimental (2007) y Enxarxats (2017). Eloi Puig es el actual presidente de la SCCFF, promotor del premio Ictineu y tambiĂ©n de una serie de encuentros de aficionados por toda Cataluña conocidos como Ter-Cat. Lo invitĂ© como autor de las mĂĄs de 1000 reseñas publicadas desde 2003 en su web La Biblioteca del Kraken, que ofrece en catalĂĄn y castellano. Por Ășltimo, pero no menos importante, Jordi Marrugat es profesor de Literatura Catalana ContemporĂĄnea en la Universitat de Barcelona, y es autor, entre otros, de Narrativa catalana de la postmodernitat: histĂČries, formes i motius (2014).

Mi propia introducciĂłn señalaba que mientras que la ciencia ficciĂłn anglĂłfona goza de un circuito acadĂ©mico completo, no hay nada similar para apoyar y dar a conocer el trabajo de los autores catalanes de ciencia ficciĂłn y fantasĂ­a. La Science Fiction Research Association, fundada en 1970, ha estado celebrando conferencias regularmente desde entonces; las revistas revisadas por pares Extrapolation (fundada en 1959), Foundation (1972) y Science Fiction Studies (1973), proporcionan un maravilloso foro de discusiĂłn. Aunque no hay tĂ­tulos completos de Grado en estudios de ciencia ficciĂłn, hay cursos en diversas universidades y tambiĂ©n un notable centro de investigaciĂłn en Liverpool, que tambiĂ©n alberga la colecciĂłn clave de monografĂ­as Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Todo esto falta en catalĂĄn, a excepciĂłn de la indispensable antologĂ­a de VĂ­ctor MartĂ­nez-Gil Els altres mons de la literatura catalana (2005), un par de disertaciones (una de Grado, otra de mĂ ster), y el trabajo que yo misma he realizado sobre Mecanoscrit del segon origen. Sin bibliografĂ­a, como sabemos, no puede haber investigaciĂłn. De hecho, uno de los revisores de mi artĂ­culo para la Catalan Review se quejĂł estentĂłramente de que no podĂ­a publicar un artĂ­culo sin fuentes secundarias acadĂ©micas; como no hay ninguna en catalĂĄn, incluĂ­ en unas pocas lĂ­neas abarrotadas referencias a media docena de libros acadĂ©micos… en inglĂ©s.

No puedo reproducir aquĂ­ todo lo que se comentĂł en una hora de mesa redonda, pero tratarĂ© de destacar algunas ideas. Hoy en dĂ­a, la ciencia ficciĂłn catalana y la fantasĂ­a interesan a un nĂșmero notable de editoriales independientes (en su mayorĂ­a establecidas en los Ășltimos diez años) y el fĂĄndom estĂĄ activo en las reuniones Ter-Cat y CatCon, mientras que sitios web como La Biblioteca del Kraken, El Biblionauta y Les Rades Grises proporcionan reseñas y crĂ­ticas especializadas. Este panorama parece positivo en todos los sentidos pero, como señalĂł Eloi Puig, la impresiĂłn es que el campo estĂĄ creciendo muy lentamente y parece no haber un relevo generacional (añado yo, teniendo en cuenta la edad media de los asistentes a la CatCon, con una clara ausencia de personas menores de 30 años).

Si bien el nĂșmero de autores estĂĄ creciendo, el mercado no es lo suficientemente fuerte como para que ninguno de ellos sea escritor profesional, una situaciĂłn que se extiende a todos los autores catalanes con muy pocas excepciones. MunnĂ©-JordĂ  y Torras no ven esto como un problema, ya que creen que de esta manera los autores son mĂĄs libres para escribir como deseen. El tamaño del mercado con, posiblemente, 300-400 copias vendidas por cada novela moderadamente exitosa, sugiere que la profesionalizaciĂłn difĂ­cilmente ocurrirĂĄ en el futuro cercano, aunque estoy de acuerdo en que esta no es necesariamente una situaciĂłn negativa. Del mismo modo, las reseñas y la crĂ­tica estĂĄn en manos de fans muy entregados. Eloi Puig explicĂł que la tarea que viene realizando en La Biblioteca del Kraken comenzĂł como una forma de compartir sus impresiones con sus amigos. No ve su papel como principal reseñador de la ciencia ficciĂłn y la fantasĂ­a catalanas (tanto originales como traducidas) como un referente principal. SegĂșn lo veo, Puig estĂĄ haciendo un excelente trabajo que es ademĂĄs la base para cualquier trabajo acadĂ©mico que se pueda hacer en el futuro. De hecho, me gustarĂ­a ver a una universidad catalana presentĂĄndose voluntaria para publicar una selecciĂłn de sus reseñas y asĂ­ conmemorar el 20 aniversario de la web el prĂłximo año.

Puig y MunnĂ©-JordĂ  han hecho, asĂ­ pues, mucho pero no son acadĂ©micos (ni asociados) en ningĂșn Departamento de FilologĂ­a Catalana. Jordi Marrugat explicĂł que aunque deberĂ­a estar en manos de acadĂ©micos escribir una historia de la ciencia ficciĂłn y la fantasĂ­a catalanas, investigar e impartir cursos, la realidad es que estamos muy limitados. Él mismo es el Ășnico especialista en literatura catalana contemporĂĄnea de la Universitat de Barcelona, y con un plan de estudios de Grado que concentra en una sola asignatura todo el s. XX y parte del XXI no hay espacio para la ciencia ficciĂłn y la fantasĂ­a. El canon y su insistencia en celebrar el Modernismo tiene prioridad. Sin embargo, me parece poco probable que los lectores, por apasionados que sean, puedan suplir esta carencia. La esplĂ©ndida bibliografĂ­a de MunnĂ©-JordĂ  y su reciente donaciĂłn a la Biblioteca Armand Cardona Torrandell de Vilanova i la GeltrĂș de su propia colecciĂłn personal de libros y otros materiales tiene como objetivo construir un legado que necesita encontrar lectores comprometidos. Me pregunto sin embargo dĂłnde se pueden encontrar ÂżNo deberĂ­an ser los estudiantes del Grado de CatalĂĄn en la universidad?

QuizĂĄs lo que mĂĄs me desconcertĂł fue la idea de que los autores de cf y fantasĂ­a valoran sus temas por encima de la calidad de su escritura, al menos esto es lo que entendĂ­ de la intervenciĂłn de Carme Torras cuando le preguntĂ© por la traducciĂłn de La mutaciĂł sentimental hecha por Josie Swarbrick con el tĂ­tulo de The Vestigial Heart, y publicada por el MIT acompañada de materiales para fomentar la discusiĂłn de la robĂłtica y la Ă©tica en el aula. Puig explicĂł que propuso la creaciĂłn del premio Ictineu porque despuĂ©s de leer esta novela pensĂł que este tipo de esfuerzo debĂ­a obtener reconocimiento. Creo que Torras tiene un estilo muy personal, y pienso que los escritores catalanes de ciencia ficciĂłn y fantasĂ­a son mĂĄs que simples contribuyentes a los debates actuales sobre tecnociencia, dada la pasiĂłn que ponen en escribir obras que, como he señalado, solo pueden llegar a un cĂ­rculo limitado. La novela ganadora del Ictineu de este año, el relato ciberpunk de Enric Herce L’estrany miratge [El extraño espejismo], es mucho mĂĄs atractiva como narraciĂłn que muchas novelas anglĂłfonas que ahora ganan Hugos y Nebulas. PreguntĂ© a los participantes en la mesa redonda quĂ© pensaban sobre lo escasas que son las traducciones del catalĂĄn en comparaciĂłn con las traducciones a nuestro idioma, y solo MunnĂ©-JordĂ  fue lo suficientemente audaz como para decir en voz alta que algunos de los libros traducidos sencillamente no son buenos. JugĂł con las palabras ‘cañón’ y ‘canon’ para sugerir que quiĂ©n se traduce a menudo es una cuestiĂłn de quiĂ©n tiene el poder.

La mesa redonda fue, creo, extremadamente esclarecedora e ilustrativa de la situaciĂłn actual de la ciencia ficciĂłn y la fantasĂ­a en catalĂĄn. Veo la botella medio llena si pienso en el despliegue de actividad entre editores, autores y los aficionados mĂĄs comprometidos, pero la veo medio vacĂ­a si pienso en los jĂłvenes. Los niños educados en catalĂĄn leen obras en catalĂĄn mĂĄs que nunca, pero, como sucede en otras ĂĄreas lingĂŒĂ­sticas incluido el inglĂ©s, el atractivo de las redes sociales les roba un tiempo precioso para leer a partir de los 10-12 años, tan pronto como reciben su primer smartphone. Su amor por las pantallas no se extiende a los libros electrĂłnicos (me dijeron que solo el 5% de todos los lectores de todas las edades los usan en España, el 20% en los Estados Unidos) y con los libros en papel a un coste de alrededor de 15-20 euros es difĂ­cil ver cĂłmo va a crecer el nĂșmero de lectores. En el caso de la ciencia ficciĂłn catalana y la fantasĂ­a tambiĂ©n echo de menos buenas adaptaciones que puedan atraer a un pĂșblico mayor, pero con TV3 en una situaciĂłn econĂłmica desesperada es poco probable que se filmen. De ahĂ­ la botella medio vacĂ­a.

VolverĂ© a este tema cuando se publique el nĂșmero de julio de la Catalan Review. Mientras tanto, echadle un vistazo a La Biblioteca del Kraken para ver lo ricas que son la cf y la fantasĂ­a actuales en catalĂĄn.

Publico una entrada una vez a la semana (me puedes seguir en @SaraMartinUAB). ÂĄLos comentarios son muy bienvenidos! Te puedes descargar los volĂșmenes anuales aquĂ­: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. La versiĂłn en inglĂ©s del blog estĂĄ disponible en https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/en/. EncontrarĂĄs en mi web informaciĂłn sobre mis publicaciones y actividades: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IS SCIENCE FICTION RESPONSIBLE FOR IMAGINING THE FUTURE? POSSIBLY


I’ve been attending these days in fits and starts the Science Fiction Research Association’s international conference, conditioned by the six-hour difference with Toronto, where the hosting institution (Seneca College) is located. Fifteen months into the pandemic I needn’t say how impossible it is to listen to anybody speak on Zoom, or similar, without either multitasking or disconnecting after five minutes. I may doodle like I’m possessed when I listen to papers delivered in person, but it is just beyond me to get used to streaming. I pity our poor students! And, no, unlike what you might expect, science-fiction conferences do not happen in an advanced virtual reality environment where we can project our ultra-realistic yet fantastic avatars, as if this were Ready Player One’s immersive universe OASIS. At most, you get funny backgrounds. A keynote speaker had chosen, for mysterious reasons, a gorgeous photo of a process of in vitro fecundation. Another was floating in outer space.

The main theme of the conference has been ‘The Future as/of Inequality’, so you can be sure that there has been much talk of class (in my case of middle-class men’s fears of not doing well as family men). Even so, I would say that the main keywords, or buzzwords, in the sessions I have attended were ‘race’ and ‘dystopia’. I wish the papers had dealt with how utopia will be reached in a post-racial future civilization, but most dealt with the extension into a long-lasting dystopia of the same racial issues negatively affecting so many people today. The number of authors and main characters other than white has grown spectacularly in recent science fiction, but many (or even most) are battling conflicts so deeply rooted in current racism that no utopian horizon is emerging for anyone of any skin colour.

The most interesting panel I attended had contributions by two of the most admirable scholars in science fiction (yes, I said admirable because I admire them): Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. This came after the keynote lecture by Lars Schmeink in which he described the connections between the current theorization of capitalism–such as surveillance capitalism, the concept popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her eponymous book, and others, such as Susan Lettow’s biocapitalism–and current science fiction. I had a feeling of dĂ©jĂ  vu, having heard plenty in the 1980s about how corporations might replace nations in the 21st century as de jure and de facto global organizations. William Gibson ranted all he wanted in his cyberpunk novels about the boundless power of zaibatsus, when it seemed that Japan would soon dominate the world (whatever happened to Japan?). And if I recall correctly, in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) the characters’ citizenship was granted by the corporations they worked for (as if I were an Autonomous University citizen rather than a citizen of the Spanish kingdom). But back to Bould and Vint: they discussed whether science fiction should and could operate beyond capitalism both in its means of production and the content of the stories. Their views were similar yet quite different. You’ll see.

There is something definitely hypocritical, I think, in telling tales of corporate dystopia while being published or broadcast by immense corporations. As Mark Bould insisted, science fiction should be free of commodification in order to be a true contributor to a future which could imagine life beyond corporate dystopia. Schmeink quoted Ursula Le Guin’s famous saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words”. This optimistic view appears to agree with Bould’s faith in science fiction but, of course, Le Guin does not explain how ‘the art of words’ can undermine the corporate monster from inside. We know that capitalism, in fact, can turn anything into a commodity, including resistance (the first example that has come to my mind is the fortune someone must have made selling t-shirts with the photo of Che Guevara).

Bould suggested something along the lines of perhaps turning science fiction into a kind of “collective folk art” as, to name an instance, ballads once were. Bould, who co-edited with British author China MiĂ©ville the volume Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), is surely aware of MiĂ©ville’s alternative proposal that authors are paid a salary by the state, which has always raised many eyebrows but seems fairer than having another job as you produce fiction in hippie-folkish (or Elizabethan aristo) style. Being myself an author paid by the Spanish state to write (also to teach, of course), I see MiĂ©ville’s point–though I wonder how authors would be selected, and if writing science fiction would be considered a merit. Anyway, Bould complained that “science fiction is everywhere but not evenly distributed” and called for an end to its commodification. My view, however, is that this goal is as difficult as making academic work truly open access, and not yet another corporate product (or what did you think it is?).

Sherryl Vint’s argumentation was more anti-corporation in the sense that she not only questioned how corporations force everything, including sf, to be commodified, but also how the nightmarish world that corporations have created has colonized sf’s imagination of the future and also our present. Her main target were the white, male, US billionaires whose visions of an ultra-monetized future we are all following like sheep to the slaughter, and how they are presenting those visions not as the opposite of the future science fiction has imagined but as its realization. To give you an example, Elon Musk is selling Neuralink–a project to connect human brains to computers–as the realization of Iain M. Banks’s neural laces in the Culture novels, calling himself a fan. Conveniently, though, Musk forgets that the Culture is a post-capitalist, post-scarcity civilization where guys like him would be socially ostracized. So, yes, I’m with Sherryl Vint in this urgent need to vehemently deny that the future to which Musk and company are dragging us is a utopian science-fictional future, and the only possible one. We must “resist the occupation of sf by all these corporations and alt-right groups”, she said, and reject all the “bad forms of using sf”. These are, I believe, dominant in the stylish but trashy sf served by the streaming platforms, cinema and videogames (less so in print fiction), overwhelmingly at the service of convincing earthlings that despite the unstoppable onslaught of climate change and other man-made disasters they must buy the latest i-phone and change their gas-powered car for a Tesla.

I have already expressed here several times that as academics we can contribute to altering the path of science fiction by writing about the works that promote positive change, and eschew the dystopian texts. I am, however, in a minority of one (or of very few), and run besides the risk of having nothing to write about if the sf I am reading and seeing these days continues in this dystopian vein. As plain consumers and as academics we can make demands on writers, showrunners, filmmakers and videogame designers to move beyond the ‘strong-hero-battles-corporation’ scenario, as we are managing to get better gender and racial inclusiveness. I’m sure that corporations are to blame a great deal for their insistence on destroying the planet as they sell us parasitical, useless objects and services but each of us contributes their share. Including myself. For instance, have spent this morning twenty euros to buy from Amazon Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry of the Future, hypocritically ignoring that this contributes more to enriching Jeff Bezos than to furthering Robinson’s crusade for utopia (I don’t think, however, that Robinson would appreciate the idea of sf as a folk product).

I am working on something completely unrelated to sf, connected with recent American politics, and listening yesterday to Senator Cory Booker speak to Jimmy Kimmel, I realized what we’re missing and this man has in great quantities: positivity. Someone commented on YouTube that listening to Booker and to Donald Trump made you wonder how they could belong to the same species. Well, Trump is a main generator of dystopia whereas Booker has made a point of turning his personal sunniness into positive politics aimed at increasing US citizens’ welfare. I am not saying that Booker should write science fiction (or perhaps he should!): what I am saying is that science fiction has lost all its optimism and that generally speaking optimism is defended by very few (like Booker). Because of this science fiction is now an almost useless tool to fashion not only utopia but even a workable plan for the next decade. Hearing my twelve-year-old niece say recently that she does not want to have children because she herself has a very difficult future ahead breaks my heart. I wish I could tell her ‘don’t be silly, your future will be great!’ (I would never tell anyone ‘do have children’, that’s their choice!) but I just cannot illustrate this promise with any text, science fictional or otherwise. We seem to have lost in the attack against the false universalism of traditional sf the ability to build new worlds without inequality.

I’ll finish with a remark someone made in the conference: the problem is that we, middle-aged white baby boomers, do not want to give up our privileges and share our wealth with other generations and other nations. This is not a new discourse, but I was dismayed to hear it in a science-fiction conference because it is divisive and because Earth has resources to make everyone’s lives better, if only we get rid of the billionaires. I don’t mean killing them and using them for compost, as someone’s bad joke went, but putting a cap to personal earnings. One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that without the incentive of making money individuals do not exert their best talents–the defunct Soviet Union is often quoted as an example of how lack of personal gain-based initiative undermines nations. Yet, as long as the world is run by a cadre of billionaires (American or Chinese, I don’t care) and their corporations the future will be dominated by inequality. As for Le Guin’s words, someone did imagine what the future would be like without the absolute right of kings, but the problem is that we cannot imagine, having horrendously failed with communism, what will replace capitalism. She suggested smaller, rural communities with limited technology based on mutual aid, but I don’t quite see that. I see full automation generating income that guarantees universal freedom from the worst kind of jobs–but that for many is dystopia.

Let’s ask science-fiction writers to come up with new ideas, and help them to rethink the future. It is our duty, as much as theirs.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE ELUSIVE MATTER OF THE IMAGINATION: TOO FRAIL TO TOUCH?

This post is going to sound a bit cloak-and-dagger since I have decided not to name the author whose opinions I’ll discuss here, in order to respect ‘their’ privacy. The art of sending emails to persons one has not met is a delicate one and in this case it has failed me totally, for which I’m very sorry indeed. I read during the Christmas break a most beautiful volume on creative writing aimed at budding authors interested in fantasy, science fiction, and gothic. By beautiful I mean that the volume has an amazing design, with plenty of illustrations, but also that the content is a gem, for it has contributions by an exciting list of authors and insights by the volume coordinator into the practice of writing fiction which must be eye-openers for all of us, teachers of Literature.

For a long time now, I have been taking any chances that come my way to ask writers about the technical aspects of their craft which, I think, we are overlooking in our obsession with identity matters and, generally speaking, content rather than writing in narrative. Author Richard K. Morgan posted in his website my interview with him about his novel Black Man and someone sent in a positive comment calling it a ‘making of’ style document. From that I got the idea of actually using this concept and I asked my good friend Carme Torras to let me interview her on her novel Enxarxats. She was extremely patient and gracious with my many questions. The resulting interview has been made available this week as a bonus feature of the e-book edition of her novel. Of course, a ‘making of interview’ needs to be read after the novel it explores has been read, since it is full of spoilers. I think of it as the kind of information that many readers are curious about just as spectators are curious about how movies are made. The idea is going beyond ‘where did you get your inspiration for the novel from?’ that journalists ask in promotional interviews and into much deeper waters.

Well, I sent the author I will not name an email praising the volume I had just read to high heavens. I described my ‘making of’ approach, and expressed my frustration that there are no volumes from writers exploring in more depth where the capacity to fantasise comes from, and why authors are divided into realists and fantasists. I do not mean following Freudian or neurobiological methodologies but as a matter of sitting down and considering the sources of the strange daydreaming which is the foundation of their work. I must say that the author in question does offer a notable amount of reflection on how the technical problems attached to writing specific scenes are handled but not about why fantastic storytelling is a skill that only a minority of human beings possess. In short, there is in the volume plenty of great advice once you know what kind of fantastic story you want to tell but no interest in examining why and how the authors of fantastic fiction come up with their singular plots. As a reader I would like to know, for it seems to me that departing from the mundane to risk narrating the imaginary takes a lot of courage. Coming up with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy is far easier than making Victor Frankenstein and his creature plausible, if you get my drift.

Alas!, my email message did not go down well. I was told by the author that if the imagination is dissected (original wording) it might resist being summoned up. My mission, this person told me, cannot help anyone to produce better writing because authors should never compromise the organic construction that novels are and readers should be satisfied with the immersive experience of reading. What needs to be discussed, I was lectured on, is not the imagination but the technique and the conscious impulses it transforms into good narrative. I replied that I totally disagreed, and thanked this person for the time used in replying to my email. I come to the conclusion that I have ruffled feathers already ruffled most likely by a pro-Freudian academic, hence the emphasis on the conscious impulses.

What I would have explained if the chance had arisen is that that is precisely what I am interested in: how authors go from ‘I have this crazy idea, who knows where it comes from?’ to ‘now, this is the structure I need to tell the story’. I very much respect the mystery of the imagination, hence my interest in it, but if you think about it I am simply following what William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge did in the famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, or Mary Shelley in the preface to the second edition of Frankenstein. I firmly think that many authors and many readers would welcome the chance to have ‘making of interviews’ accessible, and many academics would be keen to produce them. The imagination cannot be such a frail flower that its bloom is lost at the merest touch, excuse the corny metaphor.

So, now that I have let steam off, let me tell you about a few constants in fantastic authors’ declarations about their craft that scholarly work is not addressing at all, either from a formalist or a political perspective:

1. (my favourite): the best writing feels as if you’re a medium channelling a story that tells itself (a constant from Tolkien to Gaiman, etc). This is often followed by a disquieting ‘as if’: as if the stories come from a parallel universe authors tap into. You may invoke Jung at this point but that still would not explain why only some persons are gifted with that ability to connect with this suspected multiverse.

2. the authors of the fantastic (fantasy, sf, gothic) tend to be far more prolific than realist authors. This has nothing to do with lower quality standards but with the potency of their imaginations. Many speak of being happiest if left alone with their fantasy world and of writing every single day of the year, as if (another ‘as if’) losing touch with their inner storytelling sources would cause withdrawal syndrome.

3. most authors in this genre are ‘travellers’ rather than ‘planners’: they usually start their journey when a scene or a character command it, and sometimes work without knowing how the novel will end though they prefer knowing in advance. Authors who have it all planned down to the last comma and just fill in the dots are frowned upon. Writing is understood as a process of self-discovery: ‘Fancy what my mind has come up with!’ would approximate the feeling I am trying to describe, which is (I think) the root of the pleasure in (fantastic) writing.

4. this does not mean that the writing is not subjected to plenty of revision, including the throwing away of whole intermediate versions; I will name again the matter of plausibility: if making characters and situations convincing in realist fiction is hard enough, try to imagine what it is to give credibility to what simply does not exist in real life. Many authors note that a major frustration is how the final result, no matter how good, can never approach the mental impression produced by the original daydreaming.

5. characters are, obviously, the key to this process. Two ‘mysteries’ about characters (in all kinds of fiction): what do authors mean when they say that characters make autonomous decisions? And, this is a caveat: in order to be a storyteller you really must be interested in people, for without a set of solid characters you cannot engage your reader’s interest. In fact, a constant complaint against contemporary fiction of any kind is that characterization is weak, or that protagonists are not likeable people –at worst, both. I would add the matter of description. In the novel which I have just read (Colson Whitehead’s zombie tale Zone One) we learn that the male protagonist is black only in the last 35 pages. We never know his name and he goes by the nickname Mark Spitz (a white American star swimmer of the 1970s). This has wreaked havoc with my visualization of the story for I could see in all detail the zombies chomping on their poor victims but not the person I was supposed to sympathise with. On the other hand, I was much surprised by author David Weber’s declaration that he didn’t choose a woman as the protagonist of his Honorverse, the space opera series about Honor Harrington: “I didn’t set out to do it because I thought that it was especially politically sensitive on my part or because I thought it was likely to strike a chord with female readership or be a financial success. It was just the way that the character first presented herself” (https://www.wildviolet.net/live_steel/david_weber.html). Fair enough, and I’m sure Weber does not want to know where Honor comes from but, still, he can be asked about specific aspects of her characterization as a military hero with no risk to his imagination.

6. dramatized scenes are the backbone of novels – this is obvious, isn’t it?, but do we really see novels in this way? In essence, then, a novelist is that little kid with a figurine in each hand voicing each invented character in turn against the background of a plot that grows as their interaction expands. Narrative is a lot like puppetry, then. I find, however, that while the narrator’s voice interests many scholars, the construction of scenes and dialogue is not a major source of interest. This may get worse because conversation is dying out, pushed to the sides by the constant use of social media. In science fiction novels set in the future people still communicate face to face, which suggests that authors do not think that social media will gobble up dialogue – but maybe that’s the wrong representation of the future


In the volume I so much admire but will not mention there is a strange moment. An author reports a conversation with a friend who is a neurologist and who claims she has no imagination whatsoever and could never tell a story. The author cannot understand this deficiency and somehow thinks that the friend is wrong about her own lack of storytelling abilities. Some teachers of Literature are also narrators but most of us lack the ability to tell a story, which is why we are in awe of those who can perform the feat (well, of the best ones whose work we love). What the email I got reveals, though, is that not at all authors enjoy our interest in their craft and even see us as a danger because of our insistence on offering ‘clinical’ analysis. This makes me feel quite nervous, to be honest, concerning what we are doing in our research. I thought I was working to send the message that the fantastic is one of the best creations of the human mind but perhaps I am the middle-person writers and readers can do without, thank you very much. I hope not


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE COMPLEX MATTER OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (WITH THOUGHTS ON THE NATIVE AMERICAN CASE)

Working these days on an article about speculative fiction author Vandana Singh, I tried to find an American-born, white woman author to whom I could compare her case. Singh was born in Delhi but lives in the USA since the late 1980s, where she works teaching and researching Physics. The collection by Singh I am examining –Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018)– has been published by Small Beer Press, an independent publisher, and I found among their books one that appears to be the perfect comparator I need: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012). Johnson, a white Iowa native born one year before Singh, has a higher reputation, based on her having received more nominations and awards and having published novels. Yet, this is also useful as I am looking into the causes why Singh is not better known. I was not looking specifically into the thorny question of cultural appropriation but it has surfaced, hence my post today.

In three stories of her collection –“Fox Magic”, “The Empress Jingu Fishes”, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”– and in her novels The Fox Woman (2001) and Fudoki (2004) Johnson uses ancient Japan as her background though she has no direct personal link to this country. Scholar Joan Gordon (white, American-born) defends her choice on the grounds that “Rigorously researched historical narratives enable [Johnson] to avoid trivializing or exoticizing the complexity of another view of the world, and it may be that casting one’s narrative into the remote past, as Johnson’s stories do, avoids some of the difficulties of power inequity”. However, I came across a review in GoodReads by Minyoung Lee, an American female reader of Korean descent, who has a very different opinion. She is deeply offended by “The Empress Jingu Fishes” because, Lee claims, Johnson’s research is inadequate, and this leads to serious mistakes in the representation of still unsolved, complex conflicts among the Korean, the Japanese, and the Chinese.

Apparently, Lee even exchanged letters with Johnson about this but far from feeling appeased her impression that outsiders “not immersed in the subtle nuances” of the foreign culture they describe will inevitable offend insiders was confirmed. Lee wonders why anyone would “write about another person’s culture and history that you only superficially know about when you have a rich and fulfilling story of your own that cannot be told in the fullest by someone else?”. This suggests that rather than speak of cultural appropriation perhaps we should speak of cultural depletion in the case of white authors who feel no strong attachment to their own cultural background and use parasitically other cultures. Just an idea. I didn’t expect, however, to come across a case of (possible) cultural appropriation within the context of the Native American cultures of the United States


On Friday I finished reading Jack Fennell’s edited volume Sci-Fi: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2019, https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Fi-Companion-Genre-Fiction-Companions/dp/1788743490) to which I have contributed an essay on the aliens in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. The book has an article called “Indigenous Futurisms” (by Amy H. Sturgis), which was a total eye-opener, for I know nothing about Native American literature beyond having read a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. Sturgis deals among other authors with Rebecca Roanhorse and what I less expected is that I would meet her the following day, Saturday. She was a guest of honour at the ‘Seminari de Gùneres Fantàstics I’, beautifully organized by Ricard Ruiz Garzón of the Associació d’Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” was offered as a souvenir in the excellent Catalan translation by Miquel Codony. Independent publishers Mai Mes presented the Catalan version of Trail of Lightning (as El raster del llamp), the first translation into another language of Roanhorse’s first novel. Later, I had lunch with the author, an activity which as you know from a previous post is a ‘necessary encounter’, and I learned a few things, for which I am very grateful.

Rebecca Roanhorse (https://rebeccaroanhorse.com/), born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, is the daughter of an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo mother and an African-American father. She lives now in New Mexico, together with her Navajo/DinĂ© artist husband, Michael Roanhorse (https://www.truewestgallery.com/michael-roanhorse), and their pre-teen daughter. Both were present in the seminar and the ensuing lunch. I was very much surprised to read that Trail of Lightning has been criticized as a very negative example of cultural appropriation by Saad Bee Hozho, the DinĂ© Writers’ Association, mainly on two grounds: Roanhorse is not Navajo herself and the values presented as Navajo in her novel are not acceptable as such because her work is violent whereas DinĂ© culture is peaceful. The extensive open letter published online created quite a controversy, extended to other websites, mostly siding with the critique.

I was, therefore, very curious to see how Roanhorse would approach the matter in her talk with interviewer Alexandre Páez. When he asked about cultural appropriation, without alluding to this episode, Roanhorse simply replied that this kind of accusation is inevitable and one must face it as best one can. However, since she had not explained to the audience that she is part of the Navajo nation by marriage but not by birth her reply somehow suggested that the problem was white authors’ appropriation of Native American heritage. To be honest, I was not very happy with her reply and, although I feared very much stirring a nest of hornets, I was getting ready to ask the really uncomfortable question I had in mind when Catalan author Víctor García Tur asked Roanhorse again about cultural appropriation. Only then did she explain how she connects with Navajo culture, noting that about 30% of the readers were fine with her choices, 30% had criticised her and the rest had problems to make up their minds. She did not allude to the Navajo authors’ letter.

My personal opinion is that writers should be free to explore any topic and culture they feel germane to their interests. However, I think that they should make their own position as clear as possible (why not write a preface or a note?), and I certainly believe that respect for the culture visited is fundamental. Also, impeccable research. What was worrying me in Roanhorse’s case is that she was not clarifying her position before the audience and, so, most were assuming that she is Navajo. For me this is the equivalent of, say, someone from Catalonia writing about Extremadura and concealing this vital information from a foreign audience meeting someone from Spain for the first time. This type of nuanced information is very important. Authors, whether they write fiction or academic work, should avoid any misconceptions about who they are and must totally avoid, in my humble view, speaking for a whole collective to which they do not belong or only are members of in part. This can be a bit ridiculous, if you see it that way, but in my own article about Vandana Singh I have included a paragraph detailing my own position (colour, gender, nationality, age, occupation) so that readers know from which position I speak. Even so, I think, there is a world of difference between Johnson’s choice of ancient Japan, which is exoticizing no matter how lovingly done, and Roanhorse’s choice of DinĂ© culture, which she knows through her personal experience. Or maybe I’m wrong.

I asked Roanhorse about something completely different also on my mind these days. If you read academic work on non-white authors (how I hate this adjective!…) it might seem that they are progressing following traditions isolated from white authors’ work. In Vandana Singh’s case she has often referred to Ursula le Guin as a mentor, writing in her tribute following le Guin’s death that “it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote”. Le Guin not only personally encouraged Singh to publish her first story, she also provided her with crucial instances of non-white characters she could identify with. Indeed, in le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), there is not any white character, a point often missed. During the seminar there was some comment about whether le Guin could get away with this choice today, or would she be accused of cultural appropriation
 Anyway, Roanhorse noted that Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) was a major influence for her as a writer. I asked her how she connected with other white male writers, whether they read each other and so on, and she explained that fellow New Mexico resident George R.R. Martin had helped her very much, and so had John Scalzi, possibly the most popular SF author right now. Scalzi, she told me, is particularly generous in promoting the work of non-white authors. Other white male authors, Roanhorse added, are going in the right direction in their fiction by being more inclusive (paying no attention to cultural appropriation issues
) or placing women in the role of the protagonist. I must say that this is what I missed in the Sci-Fi Companion: an overview of what the ‘white boys’ are up to these days. For they are still there, dominating sales and pleasing readers –including non-white women.

Allow me to recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/), an uncomfortable story that has plenty to say about cultural appropriation and what it is like to be a dispossessed Native American (man) today. Don’t miss the readers’ comments! I have not read The Trail of Lightning (yet) but I’m told it is an exciting novel. You may not like its hero, Navajo monster-slayer Maggie Hoskie, whom Roanhorse herself describes as an “unlikeable woman”, but what is there not to like in the opening up of fantasy and science fiction to as many cultures as possible?

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT AN UGLY IMAGINATION IS ABOUT (TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MY OWN IDEAS)

I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena GonzĂĄlez of the University of Barcelona, Parias y trĂĄnsfugas modernas: gĂ©nero y exclusiĂłn en la cultura popular del s.XXI (https://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘trĂĄnsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.

The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.

I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel ClĂșa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.

Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.

Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (https://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (
) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.

My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.

Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.

By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.

I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings
 for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.

So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.

Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued


I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE FALL FROM CHIVARLY: CONSIDERING MASCULINITY IN EL QUIJOTE

This post is inspired by reading Alfredo Moro Martín’s excellent volume Transformaciones del Quijote en la novela inglesa y alemana (U. Alcalá de Henares, 2106), which is based on his doctoral dissertation. His research follows, as he acknowledges, from Pedro Javier Pardo García’s essential study La tradición cervantina en la novela inglesa del s. XVIII (U Salamanca, 1997). What is original in Alfredo’s case is that he adds to the ground covered by his predecessor (Henry Fielding and company), an examination of German author Christoph Martin Wieland’s Cervantine credentials, and a quite intriguing section on Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) as a Quixotic text.

When I met Alfredo last year (he works at the University of Cantabria and had invited me to lecture on Frankenstein and current science fiction), we exchanged some comments on how masculinity is an important, though under-researched, issue in El Quijote. Regretfully, we had no time to pursue the conversation. With apologies for having taken so long to read the book he gave me then, here are some thoughts on the matter.

As a specialist in the fantastic (Gothic, science fiction, fantasy), I return again and again to El Quijote as the text that problematized the consumption of this narrative mode. Its publication in 1605 (part II, 1615) acts as kind of primal scene in a chronology of events of which I have not made complete sense. Alfredo’s monograph does clarify the turning points at which a succession of translations made Cervantes’s proto-novel available to English and German speakers, but I’m still mystified by the time lag. Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The novel by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) which transformed the understanding of El Quijote in English Literature, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend, Mr. Abraham Adams, was published in 1742. I should not be surprised by this type of long-ranging connections, since, after all, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), re-formulated heterosexual femininity by adapting and re-writing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1816). Yet, what baffles me is that while Austen and Fielding (Helen) work essentially within the same novelistic tradition, Cervantes and Fielding (Henry) belong to two extremely different narrative paradigms.

Or perhaps not, because if something characterizes the approach of these two authors is how they use masculinity as a foundation for their absurdist humour, which centres on a naïve, idealistic, chaste man. I’m getting in this way closer to what interests me here: chivalry, and its fictional expression, the romance.

This is where things get confusing because even though all readers understand that Cervantes is mocking the genre of the chivalric romance through Alonso Quijano’s addiction, hardly any of us is familiar with its texts. We may have heard of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s quintessential Amadís de Gaula (written approx. 1304, earliest surviving print copy 1508); or, if you’re a young Catalan-speaking person, you may have been forced to ‘enjoy’ Tirant lo Blanch (Joanot Martorell and Martí Joan de Galba, 1490) in secondary school. In fact, the list of chivalric romances is quite extensive and the works hardly touched upon by Spanish Literature scholars (see https://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/libros-de-caballerias-castellanos-textos-y-contextos/html/6220ef90-a0f6-11e1-b1fb-00163ebf5e63_3.html ). What we vaguely know is that Quijano, a fifty-year-old impoverished ‘hidalgo’, loses the ability to distinguish between the fiction of the chivalric romance and reality. I have no room here to unpack the amazingly charged word ‘hidalgo’ (= ‘somebody’s son’) for it means at the same time a nobleman man of the lowest rank and a man of chivalrous behaviour. Technically, Quijano is a knight –no wonder, then, he is confused.

A major source of his and our confusion has to do with the fact that knights did and did not exist –if this sounds like quantum physics, then maybe this is how we need to approach the matter. Working last year on an essay about Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Jedi Knights (see Foundation, 48.1, #132, 2019, 37-53), which connect in many ways with the Knights Templar, I came across a very singular text: Walter Scott’s “Essay on Chivalry” (1816). This is the man who wrote Ivanhoe (1819), the novel (or is it romance?) which re-invented both chivalric romance and the knight for the 19th century. I expected Scott to enthuse about the original Medieval knights but what I found instead was this (in reference, as you will get, to Courtly Love): “Extremes of every kind border on each other; and as the [religious] devotion of the knights of Chivalry degenerated into superstition, the Platonic refinements and subtleties of amorous passion which they professed, were sometimes compatible with very coarse and gross debauchery” (40). Scott goes on in this vein to express a fundamental idea: chivalry is, as Judith Butler would put it, a gendered performance, which aristocratic men engaged in to disguise the less savoury aspects of patriarchal masculinity. Since it was a fiction even in real life, chivalry had no problem to move into the heart of the romance and thus offer men (and women) and idealized version of patriarchal masculinity.

El Quijote does not deal, then, just with the conflicted experience of a man who cannot separate romance from reality but with the mental short-circuit he suffers as the last social descendant of the men who invented the ideal. Let me stress this: Cervantes is targeting not only a literary issue but also a gendered issue, deeply embedded in the construction of patriarchal masculinity.

Let’s see if I can clarify what I mean. Take Superman (created in 1938) and all the superhero comic book tradition, and try to imagine a man who very much enjoys it, while being perfectly aware that characters like these are ideals that have nothing to do with reality (but wouldn’t it be nice to have some superheroes around
?). Now take this man, today in 2019, mightily annoyed by the way the endless stream of superhero movies is perverting (in his opinion) the comic-book legacy. Next, suppose he writes a comic book series in which a guy believes himself to be a superhero and all kinds of ridiculous things happen to him… This comic-book writer would be apparently criticizing all superheroes, but he would be actually expressing a distaste with how the figure is handled in the worst-written stories.

This might well be how Cervantes was situated. Alfredo quotes American scholar Ruth El Saffar, according to whom “Romances obviously gave [Cervantes] pleasure”, though “His problem was to find a literary form that would preserve that pleasure in the fact of an active critical intelligence”. Yes and no. Whereas most obviously superheroes have no social equivalent and do not seem to generate any wish among men of actually acting like them (beyond wearing silly superhero outfits in fan conventions), Cervantes’s knight Alonso Quijano is indeed socially connected with the noblemen that inspired the invention of chivalry. He produces the same shock and hilarity that a man trying to behave like Superman would inspire, for everyone knows that knights and superheroes are invented –presumably, so does Quijano until he forgets. Yet, the difference is that while no Superman imitator comes from the stars, El Quijote does connect the with aristocratic classes.

What I’m arguing, then, is similar to what many others have argued –Quijano wants to regulate his behaviour by a chivalric code no longer extant in the Spain of his time– yet it is very different. Quijano breaks mentally down because the chivalric romances he consumes have provided him with an idealised model of patriarchal masculinity that he values highly but that he cannot realistically perform. This is not just his fault: his society apparently venerates the same chivalric ideal, though embodied by the ‘caballero’ (the gentleman) rather than the ‘caballero’ (the knight). Since, however, the transition to the ‘caballero’ was still incomplete in the Spain of his time, Quijano is befuddled, hence his madness. In a similar vein, a man behaving today as a ‘caballero’ to a woman (as Darcy behaves towards Elizabeth in the last part of the novel) would appear to be a Quixotic throwback. For which I’m personally very sorry.

I’m then displacing the narrative tension from the generic fictional models (romance vs. the novel) to the patriarchal idealization of masculinity (the Medieval knight vs. the modern gentle/man). Let me add two more ingredients to this heady mixture: class and age. Most obviously, if the foolish Quijano elicits our sympathy this is because of his class background. Even though, later on, the dangers of reading romances were connected with the uneducated, this still meant in the upper classes (women, and young men). In a sense, his passion for reading chivalric romances unmans Quijano, which is why he must re-masculinize himself by playing knight errant. But I digress: being too poor, Sancho is not a reader and, so, he has no chivalric masculine ideal to fulfil. Regarding age, although Fielding and all subsequent authors would turn their Quixotic characters into youths, Quijano is, as I have noted, a mature fifty-year-old. This is perhaps closer to seventy in contemporary terms but let me note that R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll is also split in two at the same age, thus showing that the tensions between inner and outer ways of understanding and performing masculinity take longer than we assume to manifest themselves.

The best proof I can offer that Cervantes deals in El Quijote essentially with the problematic performance of idealized patriarchal masculinity is that Charlotte Lennox called her very funny own version The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752). Not the English Quixote, or the young Quixote but the female Quixote, thus implicitly showing that the Spanish one is, above all, the male one. This may seem far-fetched because we are used to reading everything concerning men as lacking any gender marks, but this is a perspective that needs to be altered. Now that we are seeing women’s football attracting big crowds, it’s about time to call the other kind men’s football. Same with Literature: El Quijote is a central work in men’s Literature and in the construction in fiction and in society of patriarchal masculinity.

On second thoughts, although the knight is a quintessential patriarchal figure (he always puts himself above those he aids), perhaps Quijano is at heart a dissident. By this I mean that by attempting to implement the outmoded, fictional chivalric code Quijano highlights the shortcomings of men’s actual behaviour. Just think of the contrast between the ideal, gentlemanly characters that James Stewart used to play, and the reality of President Donald Trump and you will get my drift. A man who insisted on behaving in real life like Stewart in the films would be both Quixotic and, indeed, radically anti-patriarchal in his own singular way. Wouldn’t Cervantes be surprised to read this?

Do enjoy Alfredo Moro Martín’s Transformaciones del Quijote en la novela inglesa y alemana and, of course, Cervantes’ most clever take on the masculinity of his time. Please read too Lennox’s delicious Female Quixote.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A HISTORIC DAY IN FICTION: CHIVALRIC ROMANCE WINS (OR IS THE GAME OVER?)

It is just impossible not to refer today to the controversial finale of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which surely has put 19 May 2019 in the history books about fiction for ever. While the internet rages, divided into lovers and haters of the ill-conceived eighth season (more than 1,100,000 people have already signed the Change.org petition to have it thoroughly re-written and re-shot), it is no doubt a good moment to consider whether chivalric romance has won the fight with mimetic fiction that Cervantes immortalised in Don Quijote (1605, 1615).

I must clarify that I am by no means a fan of Game of Thrones. I watched the first two seasons, and read the first two novels, and that was more than enough for me. I have been following, however, the plot summaries (I must recommend those by El Mundo Today), for I felt an inescapable obligation to know what was going on. Pared down to its bare bones, then, the series has narrated the extremely violent struggle for the possession of power in the context of pseudo-medieval, feudal fantasy–hardly a theme that appeals to me, for its overt patriarchal ideology. Women have participated in that struggle, as they did in the real Middle Ages (and later), only from positions left empty by dead men, and not as persons with the same rights. Since in the eight years which the series has lasted the debate about women’s feminist empowerment has grown spectacularly, this has created enormous confusion about the female characters in Game of Thrones. I’ll say it once more: the degree of respect and equality for women should NOT be measured by their representation in fiction written by MEN but by women’s participation in audio-visual media as creators. In Game of Thrones this has been awfully low.

[SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] I’ll add that I am very sorry for those who named their daughters Khaleesi or Daenerys–you should always wait for the end of a series before making that type of serious decision! Perhaps it is now time to think why so many women have endorsed a story that has ultimately justified the murder of its most powerful female character by a man who supposedly loves her, and who is then allowed (by other men) to walk free, despite this feminicide. And the other way around: we need to ponder why this brutal woman, a downright villain no matter how victimised she was once, has been celebrated as a positive hero. Just because she us young and pretty? All Daenerys ever wanted was power for herself, to sit on the throne and play crowned dictator, not to change the lives of others for good. This is the reason why she needs to be called a villain. In short: patriarchy has scored a victory with GoT: we are hungry for female heroes, and they have given us a villainess (or two, if we count Cersei, of course). Sansa and Arya (and Brienne) are just what they always have been: consolatory nonsense, as the late Angela Carter would say. Next time around, please all of you, women and men who hate patriarchy, reject its products.

Now, back to my topic: leaving gender issues aside (supposing we can), has chivalric romance won over mimetic fiction with GoT? Was the battle skewed since its inception? Did Cervantes really intend us to follow Alonso Quijano in his madness, induced by reading so much high fantasy? Or is the collective passion for GoT the kind of insanity Cervantes warned us against? I don’t have room here to explore this in much detail but since I have a class to teach tomorrow about Pride and Prejudice, I do want to trace here briefly the frontlines in the battlefield to see how they stand. Austen once wrote her own Cervantine anti-fantasy novel, Northanger Abbey, a frontal attack against gothic, published posthumously in 1818. If she were alive today, she would be possibly groaning and sharpening her computer keyword to pen an onslaught onto fantasy with dragons


The thesis I am going to defend is that we are at a crossroads: mimetic fiction as practiced by Jane Austen and company cannot fight the primary impulse that favours fantasy; yet, fantasy seems unable to renew itself and satisfy the demands of its consumers (above all, of women seeking post-sexist stories). Both mimetic fiction and fantasy fiction, I maintain, are reaching an impasse. The popularity of television series is contributing to that impasse by eroding the novel in favour of the audio-visual and by maintaining an anachronistic writing system that, as we have seen, can no longer ignore the voice of the (angry) spectator.

Histories of literature usually present realistic/mimetic fiction as the centre of the Literature worth reading, leaving fantasy at the margins. Academia, however, has been partly colonized since the 1980s by scholars with very different values, quite capable, besides, of reading both mimetic and fantastic fiction (here I mean the three modes: fantasy, gothic, and sf). This has been changing the perception of how fiction works, with non-mimetic fiction gaining more ground but with the main line still attributed to realist fiction. My point is that, in fact, GoT certifies that we have been narrating a very biased version of literary history: mimetic fiction has not only been unable to stem the tide of fantasy but has also given fantasy some key elements–the melodrama of the 18th century novel of sensibility, the historical fiction of the Romantic period, and the verisimilitude that the old romances lacked with the mighty Victorian novel. When J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy for ever with The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), all those elements solidified.

So let me trace the genealogy, briefly. Chivalric romances, written in a variety of European languages, started as epic tales in verse to become prose narrative by the early 13th century. I don’t know enough Spanish Literature to understand why Cervantes focused in the early 17th century on the dangers of reading a genre that had been around for centuries. Amadís de Gaula by Garci Rodríguez de Montalbo is supposed to have been written in 1304, though it become really popular after the introduction of printing (c. 1440s). Le Morte d’Arthur (1485, Thomas Mallory) and Tirant lo Blanc (1490, Joanot Martorell, Martí Joan de Galba) are closer to Quijote but even so, he is driven mad by very old-fashioned texts, if I understand this correctly.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) came too early to have an immediate impact, for the novel, so to speak, was not yet ready to be born. Thomas Shelton was the first to translate the two volumes into English (this was the first translation ever) in 1612 and 1620 but it was not until the 18th century that Cervantes could truly impact the realist novel. Tobias Smollett, who translated El Quijote in 1755 is usually included in the list of British authors of the sentimental novel (or novel of sensibility) but he seems to have picked up from Cervantes a major distrust of any fiction aimed at eliciting excitement rather than intellectual pleasure. Henry Fielding, who mercilessly mocked Samuel Richardson’s quintessential sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) with Shamela (1741), took Cervantes’s mantle to propose a style of narrating full of authorial irony, which Jane Austen eventually inherited. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) remains Fielding’s masterpiece.

Jane Austen’s own mimetic fiction can be said to be a belated type of sentimental fiction and at the same time as example of double resistance to this sub-genre and to gothic. Austen cannot have enjoyed the excesses of Richardson’s tale of rape Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) nor the silliness of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) but I do see her having a good laugh at Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and, of course, admiring Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) or Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen, plainly, did not enjoy what most of her contemporary readers preferred: not only sentimental fiction but, mostly, gothic, from Horace Walpole’s pioneering The Castle of Otranto (1764) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), passing through Ann Radcliffe’s best-selling The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s frankly scandalous The Monk (1796). I’m 100% sure that George R.R. Martin has read, and heavily underlined, Lewis’s novel.

Gothic brought fiction back the Middle Ages as the backdrop for countless horrific thrillers about innocent heroines chased by appalling villains. At the time when the genre had been around already for about fifty years, Walter Scott (1771-1832) expunged the fantasy elements to turn the past into the stuff of the new historical novels. The Waverley Novels (1814-1832), with hits such as Ivanhoe (1820), prepared the ground for the grafting of the old chivalric romance, purged of the less palatable that so worried Cervantes onto the fictional model of the historical novel. William Morris laid the foundation for what was later known as high fantasy, heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery with his prose narratives A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1889), The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). Morris’s translations, in partnership with EirĂ­kr MagnĂșsson, of the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (1870) and these novels were a direct inspiration for Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings is called a novel, not a romance, and this is what it is. H.G. Wells must have been among the last novelists to call his fantasy fiction ‘romance’ (a word we now use, confusingly, for romantic fiction similar to Austen’s). I might be completely wrong but, as I understand the matter, whereas in the old type of romance which Alonso Quijano enjoyed reading most elements were highly improbable, the new kind of romance (from Morris and Wells onwards) has learned the lesson of verisimilitude from the novel. Its plot is still impossible but, once we suspend our disbelief, each scene seems plausible, that is to say, the characters interact realistically, as they would do in a mimetic novel. This is how the battle against mimetic fiction is being won: if you can have similar complex characterisation, a naturalistic type of dialogue, and a thrilling setting, why not choose fantasy over fiction set in the too well-known realm of realistic representation?

The post-Tolkien realism of fantasy (call it the neo-romance), however, is also its bane. You may include as many dragons as you please, and give some of your characters magical powers, but it is simply impossible to write first-class fantasy (or gothic, or science fiction) which is not rooted in the real world. I do not mean by this that the best fantasy is necessarily allegorical: what I mean is that since characters in current fantasy must act realistically, they are shaped by expectations very similar to those shaping characters in mimetic fiction. If you had Harry Potter fight corporate villainy instead of a dark wizard, with no magical elements, the tale would be more boring but, basically, the same story (if would be closer to John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener). And the other way around: just because Daenerys has a special bond with her dragons, this does not mean that you may disregard the feminist expectations piled on her by so many female and male readers, based on their experience of real life (and not of handling dragons). Hence the impasse


Ironically, then, we need to go back to Jane Austen for the fantasy of female empowerment, which allows the relatively poor Elizabeth Bennet to marry upper-class Darcy and climb in this way many rungs up the social ladder. Cinderella wins the game and gets to be, presumably, happy. In contrast, Game of Thrones has taken its ultra-realism so far that we are literally left with a colossal pile of ashes and the mounting anger of the many fans who thought that by endorsing fantasy they were supporting the alternative to the conservatism behind most mimetic fiction. It’s game over, not for fantasy but for fiction which does not listen to its readers and that can only tell tales of violence, with no sense of wonder or of hope – which is what we really need.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REVISITING FRANKENSTEIN: A FEW NOTES ON DOMESTICITY, THE CYBORG AND THE POST-HUMAN

I will soon start teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and although the best time to revisit this classic was last year–the bicentennial anniversary of its original publication–2019 is also a good moment to re-read it, for it is the year when Ridley Scott set his masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Both novel and film are closely connected, since Blade Runner, though based on Philip K. Dick’s bizarre SF novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) is one of the myriad texts descended from Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the first to ask, in earnest, ‘what if science could generate powerful monsters that could escape human control?’ and this is a question that frames Dick’s and Scott’s work. And our year 2019.

I have recently reviewed an article by a young researcher in which I found some confusion regarding the use of the concepts ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’, and I’ll use Frankenstein to clarify them, and then to proceed with some comments. Before I forget: I’m using the Oxford World’s Classic edition (the 2008 reprint) with my students but I was aghast to see that the prologue and the bibliography are the work of one Prof. M.K. Joseph who died in 1981. I immediately e-mailed the Literature editor at Oxford UP to suggest that they commission a new introduction by someone who truly understands how Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece connects with current, urgent issues, and, generally, with our science-fictional present. We’ll see if they answer.

Brian Aldiss famously celebrated in Billion Year Spree (1973) Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, stressing in passing that the Gothic narrative mode is one of the foundations of sf, at least of its more technophobic branch. Re-reading the novel now, at the beginning of 2019, and possibly for the fifth or sixth time (I lose track), a few things strike me as singular. One is that Mary’s tale is a frontal attack against male ambition but not necessarily a feminist text; the other is that she understood long before we had a name for it, what the post-human is.

The feminist question is obvious enough: Victor’s horrific ordeal is framed by the letters that explorer Robert Walton sends to his sister Margaret so that we see how useless men’s pursuit of glory, honour and fame is. The alternative lifestyle which Mary recommends is, nevertheless, one of sedate domesticity, in which women occupy a traditional position as dutiful, pre-Victorian angels in the house.

Margaret, the addressee of the letters by Captain Walton that frame Victor’s and the monster’s testimonials, stands for married bliss in safety and domesticity. So does Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s adoptive sister, and doomed wife as the monster’s victim; as such, she is the embodiment of the dangers that men bring into the peace of the hearth but also of total submission. Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), among which she placed education in a central position, never mentions Elizabeth’s right to attend university, as Victor and his friend Henry do. She is raised to be Victor’s wife and no event in the awful tragedy that unfolds diverts her from this path, even though she could have been much better company for Victor if only she had some inkling of his overambitious scientific pursuits. Mary Shelley simply offers no critique of the patriarchal script written for Elizabeth by his adoptive parents and by Victor himself, even though the author is adamant that there is something very wrong in men’s extra-domestic pursuit of glory and, using Barbara Ehrenright’s phrase, their ‘flight from commitment’.

I partly agree with Mary’s critique of the male sacrifice of domesticity–possibly what she endured as Percy Shelley’s wife–because it is often based on total selfishness. At the same time, I fail to see in which ways the world would be a better place if the many self-driven individuals (mostly men but also many women) had limited themselves to raising families. There must be a middle ground.

Reading David Grann’s excellent non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s suicidal search for the lost City of Z (the title of the book), I often thought that male wanderlust must be evidence of ingrained insanity. Yet, so many women also feel the drive to fulfil their ambitions even against all reason that it cannot simply be a matter of gender but something else that makes domesticity secondary. Why someone with small, dependent children would volunteer to travel to Mars, and possibly never return, baffles me, not so much because of the need to fulfil the dream but because of the aspiration to combine ambition and family. This is not, of course, Walton’s and Frankenstein’s situation, and perhaps what Mary Shelley was saying is that excessive ambition is incompatible with family life, and even with life. But, is this right? If she was imagining some low-key, pastoral idyll, as an alternative, she does not explain. At the same time, most often the likes of Victor are managing to create man-made horrors while keeping jobs and family well balanced, a possibility Mary does not contemplate, believing as she does that scientific discovery is a kind of youthful brain fever that overtakes everything else in the single individual’s life. Again: there must be a middle-ground.

How about the cyborg and the post-human? The monster that Victor creates is NOT a cyborg, for a cyborg is a creature, or person, whose body combines organic and inorganic materials. Donna Haraway had read sufficient science fiction when she wrote her famous 1985 tract ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ to understand this, but it seems to me that very often students and scholars who use the word cyborg do not really know what they’re talking about, and simply assume that the word refers to any artificial creation.

Victor’s monster is artificial because he is not woman-born but he is 100% organic. Frankenstein discovers first the principle of life, ‘the capacity of bestowing animation’, and decides next to build a superhuman body–if that body is functional, then he will apply himself to re-animating ordinary human corpses. Since preparing ‘a frame’ is difficult because of ‘its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins’ he decides to work at a larger scale: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet [2.40 m] in height, and proportionably large’. Mary wrote before DNA was known, and before the first transplant of a human organ was ever attempted, and we need to read this part of Victor’s research as a necessarily preposterous tale; yet, the main point is that he is not using magic but science.

Once the creature is made–and in its manufacture 20-year-old Victor is amazingly successful–Frankenstein is appalled to see that he is an ugly thing: ‘His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’. Nobody has really managed to give an accurate pictorial representation of the monster, who does not look at all like the bolts-and-nuts version of Boris Karloff. Yet, I always say that Victor’s problem is that while he is a great anatomist and a wonderful surgeon, he is a disaster as an artist. A failure, if you wish, as a plastic surgeon. Had be been able to combine the features selected harmoniously, we would have a very different tale of celebrity, as everyone admires a beautiful being. As for his being a giant, well, being 7 feet tall is the foundation of Pau Gasol’s celebrity
 The monster would be a highly valuable basketball player today!

Something that I missed in previous readings is how often the monster refers to ordinary human beings as another species, and also to himself. I am always correcting my students when they refer to the human race for we are a species (Homo Sapiens) and not a race, and I was surprised to see that the monster is well aware of this crucial difference. The name Homo Sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 but this was long before any thought of evolution was contemplated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882); many have commented on Mary’s allusion to Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (1731-1802) as the scientist whose discoveries in connection to electricity may have inspired Frankenstein’s use of an engine to ignite the spark of life. Yet, to me, the monster’s awareness of species difference is far more exciting.

When he demands en Eve from his maker, the creature argues: ‘I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create’ (my italics). Of course, I’m cheating a little bit, for Mary mixes ‘species’ and ‘race’ indiscriminately and, thus, Victor decides to destroy the female creature he is working on afraid that ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’. He is horrified to see himself as the ‘pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race’. My point, though, is equally valid: Frankenstein is the earliest text to posit the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens with a man-made superior human species, that is to say, with a post-human species.

The difference between the cyborg and the post-human is, then, easy enough to understand: the cyborg has inorganic material in their body and cannot pass on any modification of this kind to their offspring; in contrast, the post-human is a different human species that will breed other individuals of the same species, and might wipe out Homo Sapiens if competing for the same environmental resources. As the Neanderthal disappeared, so might we, with the difference that this might happen out of our own mad shattering of the frontiers of science, if we go just one step too far and modify the human genome. Of course, neither Mary nor Victor knew about all this, but their ignorance is irrelevant (also an anachronism): the monster is a monster because we are terrified of the possibility that other humans might push us out. Victor, it must be recalled, manufactures not just someone who is big but also someone who is strong, extremely resistant to heat and cold, with an enhanced muscular capacity and, in short, far better equipped than Homo Sapiens to live on a radically post-human Earth.

The other novel I am teaching this semester is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), published five years before Frankenstein. Indeed, Austen died in 1817, while Mary Shelley was busy writing her novel, as a young mother of the boy William. I never cease to be amazed that English Literature could accommodate in the same period styles in fabulation so thoroughly different. And I wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet instead of Elizabeth Lavenza had fallen in love with Victor Frankenstein, rather than Fitzwilliam Darcy. Or if Darcy had kept a secret lab at Pemberley. Possibly, some kind of literary short-circuit!

How lucky we are, then, that we can enjoy both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN MIDDLE-EARTH AGAIN: TOLKIEN (AND WILLIAM MORRIS)

I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here: www.raco.cat/index.php/Dart/article/download/100491/151064).

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: https://archive.org/details/volsungasagatran009188mbp) but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing
 But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god IlĂșvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male ManwĂ« is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of LĂșthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for LĂșthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, EĂłwyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me EĂłwyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/