The Darkest Depths of Mordor

Despite longing to be published and therefore to be able to call myself an author and a writer, I wouldn’t say that I am biased towards books.  Easily it could be said that I love them, but I also love television and movies and computer media.  For every Harry Potter I’ve read, I’ve watched twice as many Star Wars and Doctor Who’s and played as many Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect‘s or Fallout’s.  Each tell their stories -and they are excellent tales- well.  So, book or movie or game, I harbor no great preference for one medium over another.

Why then not a screenwriter?  Why not a video game writer?  Why a novelist?  Why chose the one medium that is seemingly the least relevant in today’s high-tech, media-dominated world?  Why chose the medium that many pundits cite as becoming rapidly obsolete and that is ultimately doomed?  Why, indeed.

I’ve read books all my life.  My parents read to me as a child and I still remember some of my favorite books: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, the Dr. Suess books, Richard Scary, the Bernstein Bears.  As a teen I read Judy Bloom and then adult fiction as I grew older.  I loved science- fiction and fantasy novels.  I could not read enough of them.  Yet, for some unfathomable reason, I never managed to read what most consider to be the most influential -and the perennially favorite- fantasy novel of all time: The Lord of the Rings.  I knew of it and roughly understood the storyline, but I’d never found the time to read it.  Maybe it was the sheer size or scope of it which daunted me, but I’d read equally dense series.  If I could read Robert Jordon’s Wheel of Time series or the Dune sextology, surely I could read Tolkien’s work.  But I didn’t.  Not until the winter of 2000, that is.  That was the year I went to ‘Mordor’ in this world.

Terminal illness has a way of placing all of your life into a shadowy limbo.  For the afflicted, normal life is put on hold, as one struggles to survive or comes to accept ones impending mortality, like a swimmer slowly drowning and either struggling for that breath of salvation and life or facing that the surface will never be breached and settling into the welcoming embrace of oblivion.  For those loved ones nearest to the afflicted, life becomes a stereoscopic collection of sepia-toned snapshots of day to day life.  We live in reality, but it has no true depth, no life, no color.  It is simply the illusion of a normal life, but is flat when viewed up close.  One must face not only the death of the loved one, but also the death of all things.  For those living the longest vigil -and terminal illness of any sort is an eternity of emptiness- we have nothing we can do but face death.  We are not dying in body -though part of us is indeed dying- so we can only watch as something we love passes away from us irrevocably, something that seemed permanent and eternal becomes fragile and ephemeral.

In the fall of 2000, my mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  For those that knew my mother, she was a forceful, vibrant woman.  My friends from high school and college cherished her.  She was a mother to all, “Mama B”.  There was never anyone I introduced her to that did not instantly love and appreciate her.  Outside of my friends, she was a librarian and the pioneer for a children’s program at the local Air Force base.  It was her ‘Storytimes’ that brought her the greatest joy in life and I am sure inspired a generation of children from military families.  She was full of light and life and as the chemotherapy ate away at her, she lost a tiny bit of her heart and soul with each drip-drop-drip of the IV.

In late-December, shortly after our last Christmas together, she was hospitalized after going into acute distress and lapsed into a coma.  The attending doctor informed us she was unlikely to survive through the week, let alone into the New Year.  All treatment options had since been abandoned, so the cancer was left to slowly devour her, to consume her.  All that seemed to be keeping her alive was machines.  Her frail, shrunken form could now only be filled with sickness and suffering and our family made the decision to aid her on her way by removing the life support we felt was sustaining her but prolonging her misery.  

But she was not quite ready.  Even without life support, she carried on.  For nearly three more months, she fought to stay alive or was simply too stubborn to let go.  Many have called me stubborn and I proudly claim that I inherited it from my beloved mother.  We will never know what kept her alive or why, but it was three months we could never truly regret.  On February 17th, 2001, we brought my mother home from the hospital so she could be at home at last.  On the morning of the 19th, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., she passed away.

For those longest three months of my life -and I’m sure the life of my father and grandmother as well- we held a bedside vigil.  Each of us grieved and suffered in our own way: the loss of a child before her time, the death of a wife and a love cherished above all others, the passing of a mother and friend.  Those three months -twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week- there was always someone with her. 

Quite often, all three of us -plus countless friends, family and colleagues- would be in attendance, watching her silent form.  However, we still had to work and eat and bathe.  Only one of us was allowed to sleep in the hospital in my mother’s room -and by default this was my father- so I slept at home, as well as maintaining my job, so I was not always in attendance.  But my father had his own duties outside of the hospital to which he was forced to attend to and I mandated that he sleep at home some nights.  I also made the same demands of my grandmother.

The death of a parent is a traumatic -but ultimately natural- thing.  I may not have intellectually understood that then, but I recognize it now.  At the time, some part of me recognized this and also recognized how unnatural the ordeal my father and grandmother must be going through, so I made sure that they had some respite from it.  Many nights, I would sit alone with my mother, savoring the intimate nature of being sole guardian, yet also acutely feeling the loss and loneliness it incurred.

It was during these long evenings and longer nights that I first read The Lord of the Rings.  I had read The Hobbit earlier in the year, purely by coincidence, and owned a paperback collection of the novels for some time, so I knew the tale of Bilbo Baggins and of his invisibility ring and it seemed an opportune time to read the trilogy novels.  So for many an hour I would sit reading by my mother’s side, absorbed in the story of the One True Ring, of its many Bearers, and of the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth.

It would be easy to say that The Lord of the Rings provided me with an escape from a horrible and soul-crushing time in my life.  However, this would not be true.  Indeed, the living death of my mother was horrible beyond rational thought and no soul can pass through such an experience unblemished, but those last days -as terrible and testing as they were- were gifts my family had been given.  They were assuredly dark gifts, but still days stolen from fate and given to us to allow us precious hours with a person we loved and honored.

No, Tolkien’s work was instead a symbolic framework for the experience I was having.  The road we all walked, even though we walked it with each other, was always and universally a lonely one.  Each of us carried our own burdens, our own fears, our own sadness.  And obviously, the journey was very dark and we always knew it would end in sorrow.  But we drew comfort and strength from each other to find faith and hope in a time filled with darkness and hopelessness.

This was not so unlike the tale of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring.  As I read about their adventure -how they dealt with their losses and their own sorrows and fears- I was able to better come to terms with what I was going through.  It gave me the intellectual and emotional freedom and detachment to find answers to my mother’s suffering and dying, to see past the horror and the pain and view her passing as a transition and her strength and will-to-live as ultimately heroic and moving.  Like Samwise Gamgee, I watched my mother bear her terrible burden, her ‘Ring’, pursued by an implacable and invincible-seeming foe until finally she was able to be relieved of it and pass -like Frodo- unto the her own Grey Shores.

This is why I love books.  This is consequently why -if ever asked- I would say that my favorite books, the books I love most, would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Not because I am a geek at heart nor because I love fantasy literature, but because they transformed me, brought me courage and faith in a time where little of either could easily be found.  These books gave me strength so that I could then share that strength with my father and my grandmother. 

Books are transformative like no other medium.  They not only can educate and entertain, but also inspire, enlighten and elevate us.  They involve and engage us in a way that movies rarely achieve and television can only aspire to.  Literature is the beating heart of our civilization, the ballad of our dreams and the funerary march of our sorrows.   The greatest dreamers, philosophers, educators and leaders of our day will never cite their inspiration as a movie.  Governments and ways of life do not spring into being nor fall into ruin because of a television show.  Literature is a beacon for our minds and our souls.    Literature allowed me to walk deep into the dark heart of my Mordor and re-emerge into the light.  Of all of the things I could have ultimately chosen to do in life -or at least to aspire to- the act of sharing words and ideas and dreams with others seems like one of the noblest of callings.


~dedicated to the loving memory of Mary Louise ‘Mama B.’ Burnside

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When Harry Met Bella

I’ll start this with a disclaimer. I am not a teenage girl and have never been a teenage girl. when I was much, much younger, I dated a couple, but claim no great insight into the mind and passions of the teenage girl, so I can say that my views on the topic I’m about to discuss are biased by that fact. Nothing misogynistic here: I just understand what it’s like being a teen boy more than what it’s like being a teen girl.

Perhaps the most important thing a writer can create is a compelling protagonist. They are (usually) the subject of the story being told and it is by association with them that we see and experience the events the writer wishes to unfold. So, the writer must present to us a character that is someone whom we can understand their motives, that we will applaud (or condemn) their actions and that drives the story forward, usually through their actions. Generally, this person is a hero or heroine, embodying all of the traits we wish to possess and the opportunities we would like to experience.

However, not every protagonist is a hero or innately heroic. Take for instance Dexter from Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Darkly. He’s not traditionally heroic and noble. He is traditionally psychopathic and homicidal. Few of us -we can only hope- can truly understand him on any fundamental level. We can perhaps comprehend his vigilante tendencies, but all type of association or emotional rapport ends there. He’s a monster and few of us want to be monsters. Nonetheless, Dexter is a compelling character and even though we share no commonalities with him, we are still intrigued and affected by him.

So, clearly, not all great protagonists are ‘heroes’, per se. Not all of them have to be. So, with that in mind, I want to discuss two protagonists from series that have had a huge impact on the literary world yet have been portrayed is less than heroic ways. Both inspire millions of readers -for better or worse- yet one is (what I would call) the perfect character, whereas the other is the epitome of an anti-protagonist. Obviously, I am referring to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyer’s Isabella Swan.

I’m not going to be critiquing either Rowling or Meyer in this post. This is not about whether I think they are good writers or not. Clearly they are popular writers and that speaks to their influence, regardless of my thoughts. My only caveat to that would be that I consider the effect and power of a main character to be a direct reference to the skill of the writer. So, in that respect, I suppose I will be commenting on each writer’s skill in making a good main character.

First, let’s look at Harry Potter. Orphaned at birth by Voldemort -a malevolent and power hungry Dark Wizard- Harry has grown up in the abusive and negligent home of his aunt and uncle, the Dursley’s. When he begins his journey, he is barely 11 and by all accounts a relatively humble and unremarkable wizard, his only claim to fame being that he didn’t die at Voldemort’s hands as a baby. Through the next six years, he finds himself becoming gradually more embroiled in Voldemort’s second rise to power. As such, he often fumbles into dire situations through no desire of his own (but occasionally through his own mistakes or volition) and is usually aided by those wiser and more knowledgeable than he. In the end, the various political and social mechanisms of his world propel him on a quest to defeat the Dark Wizard and essentially save the world from his tyranny.  In general, Harry could be described as being herded through life by fate, politics and the tactics of others but rarely by his own hand.

On its face, these books are the tale of a very reluctant hero. Harry rarely seeks the troubles that find him, except through the normal thirst to know and to explore of any young boy. As is mentioned by several of the characters, Harry is not exceptionally intelligent (his friend Hermione is the book-smart character), nor the most world-wise (Ron and Harry’s parade of adult friends fill that role), but he has an abundance of spunk, courage and determination. I think it’s this combination of being an ordinary kid thrust into extraordinary circumstances and coping the best he can that compels us as readers.

Most of us can understand Harry, can put ourselves in his shoes and usually would have done the exact same thing. We see him grow as a person, as a wizard and as a young man. He begins to deal with issues most of us will never have to deal with and should be eternally grateful for not experiencing. What we see is a true ‘hero’s journey’ from impotent child to resolute, self-empowered young man. Harry is the hero most of us could envision having been.

By contrast we have Isabella “Bella” Swan, the ersatz heroine of the Twilight series. Like Harry who inspired and entertained a generation of pre-teens and post-teens (the latter Harry Potter books are dark, brooding adult fare), Bella has become something of an avatar for a legion of swooning emo teenage girls. Isabella is likewise transported from her familiar world into new and discomforting circumstances. Living with her father, she meets a handsome young boy with an affinity for body glitter and a thirst for human blood, specifically her blood. She finds him dreamy; he finds her delicious like a steak.

Thus begins four books of anti-feminist, passive-aggressive character building. At best, Edward – as well as his whole family, plus nearly every other single character she encounters- treats Bella as a prize or a treasure, to be protected and cherished. At worst, she is treated as something to be avoided, a temptation Edward needs avoid, because she is just so delicious smelling. While it could be said that Meyer is trying to (not-so) subtly ramp up the romantic and sexual tension between her two characters, all she really does it rob Bella of any sense of self-worth. Bella’s ego is divorced from her own merits and instead coupled to how much other people cherish and desire her. Bella is an object, be it filigreed egg or filet mignon; she is just something to be coveted or consumed.

The sad thing is that this could have worked to produce wonderful tension and drama, if only Bella was actually a character with any innate sense of depth. She could have rebelled against Edward’s antiquarian and chauvinistic tendencies, been insulted by Jacob Black’s primal lust for her and aghast at his borderline pedophilic love for her daughter. She could have been a smitten girl who was in love with a disco vampire but then transcended her emo nature to become a truly empowered woman.

Instead, she is a caricature of a teenage girl: a fumbling, clumsy, angst-ridden damsel-in-distress. Edward and Jacob are perpetually saving her; from other vampires, from other werewolves, from her own independence and self-actualization, it would seem. She makes decisions, but they rarely seem to be in her own self-interest and are always –ALWAYS– coupled with her longing to be with Edward. She lives her life in these books to be with a man-in-a-boy’s-body who never sees her as a strong, vibrant woman (which she -of course- is not) but often with disdain or with diminution. She’s never an equal, worthy of his eternal love and adoration. She’s always just a beautiful fragile flower who could not possibly protect herself or be trusted to decide her own fate.

And she never disproves this opinion. She is everything he says she is: clumsy, emotionally dependent and immature. While it can and has been said this is a snapshot of the emotional life of teenage girl, the difference is that hopefully the girl becomes a woman. Hopefully she would learn that she doesn’t need a man, even a spangled, statuesque one, to derive self-worth. She can -and should- be a power in her own right, even if mortal and therefore physically fragile. Bella never ‘comes of age’; she never grows as a character; she never takes command of her life and therefore the story. She is simply a living, breathing set-piece; as important as the city of Forks, but not very much more lively.  She’s moved around at the whim of others and is pathetic enough to imagine that this is her soul’s desire.

That is where our two protagonists differ. Harry is unwillingly thrust into a destiny that he does not want and cannot handle by himself, yet matures into a man who assumes a measured control of his life and of the fates of those around him. He dies inside as those he loves die and assuming responsibility ceases to be an object in the story evolving around him and becomes the catalyst of it.

Bella on the other hand willingly thrusts herself into a life that she then subsequently relinquishes all control over. She metaphorically jumps into a roaring river and then is content to float down the rapids on her back, relying on those around her to save her from the rocks and the brambles, but never charting her own course.  Eventually, the reader is so disgusted by how pathetic and passive she is that we wish she would just float right into the jaws of a bear or an alligator.  At least then the crunch would inspire in us a visceral thrill.

I imagine that when you write a book, you want people to empathize with the characters in your story. You are telling a tale about that person (and perhaps those of his or her friends as well) and it’s important that the reader wants to continue hearing about that person and their tale. Failing that, people stop caring about the tale you are telling them. There’s nothing horrible about Stephanie Meyer’s prose. It’s not intricate nor robust, but it’s not intended to be. it’s written for teens and like Rowling, the words and phrases used aimed at that audience. But Harry is such a wonderful character and Bella such a pathetic passive-aggressive that it’s almost painful to plod through Twilight, let alone the other three books, whereas all six years of Harry’s life fly by in a breeze. We thrill to Harry Potter in our hearts because we want to experience all he experiences. We would willingly endure his pains to rejoice in his victories in real life. For Bella: some might get the same emotional and erotic thrill from BDSM fiction. It is not love Meyer is writing about; it’s submission and domination. That might appeal to some people, but there’s nothing heroic about it…