Satirists, Lost and Found

Last week was an interesting one in the realm of satirical literature. It brought us word of the sad passing of a modern master, Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, and also of the re-discovery of the grave of Miguel de Cervantes, author of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, and a founder of the genre.

I am a Don Quixote fan from way back, beginning with the musical version, “Man of La Mancha,” starring Peter O’Toole (another master).  I once wrote an essay for my Themes in Literature class relating Oedipus’s choice to blind himself at the end of Oedipus Rex with Quixote’s arch-nemesis, the Knight of Mirrors:  it is a hard thing to face one’s self and what one has become.  I own three copies of Cervantes’ novel:  a big, fat paperback which I read while on a backpacking journey through Spain, a leatherbound edition from the 1800’s with each “book” in the novel in its own separate volume, and the Modern Library edition, illustrated by another of my favorites, Salvador Dali.

Pratchett and Cervantes both used the tools of story-telling to convey their meanings, and hold up that dreaded mirror to their contemporary lives.  They created engaging characters, brought them through great adventures, and made readers laugh along the way.   Entertainment was the vehicle that carried their questions into the hearts of their readers.

Both men, Cervantes and Pratchett, have been viewed in their own time primarily in that light, as entertainers, authors of funny books easily read and passed along.  But Cervantes’ long legacy suggests the greater depth of his work, and a close reading of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza finds the author poking fun at government, at chivalric ideals, at literature itself.

Similar concerns may be found in Pratchett’s marvelous novel, The Nation, in which a young man’s home is destroyed, and must be painstakingly rebuilt–in an area known as the Mothering Sunday islands, a jab at the British explorers who traipsed about “discovering” and re-naming many things that already had perfectly good names to begin with.  What constitutes good governance? What values should rule society and who gets to decide them?

As Cervantes suggested, there is a fine line between madness and vision.  In the grand tradition of the king’s fool, the entertainer is often the carrier of truth, the sorts of truths we find hard to examine.  We turn away from our own reflection, but the funhouse mirror of a good satire beguiles us into a closer look. After all, it’s only a story.

Archaeologists and academics around the world hope that discovering Cervantes’ grave and the publicity surrounding this event will result in a resurgence of interest in his work.  Will Terry Pratchett, one of his literary heirs, one day be celebrated in such a way?  Only time will tell.

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Ancient Aliens vs. Good, Hard Work

While recovering from recent illness and exhaustion (and under duress by another family member) I wound up watching a couple of episodes of a program designed to convince us that many of the great ancient monuments of the world were built by aliens. Yep, that old saw is still around.  Actually, what they say now to avoid *some* of the consternation of claiming that ancient peoples (particularly non-Europeans) weren’t capable of building their own architecture, is that the aliens brought tools and techniques, which the locals then applied.

The theme that came up over and over again as these predominantly white middle- or upper- class white collar authors and “experts” spoke was that, really, if people had to make the pyramids from scratch it would be such Hard Work.  And I was struck by the fact that these are people who have probably never had to do that kind of physical labor. Is it hard to be a researcher or an author or an academic?  Yes, but in a very different way from the hard work of being a manual laborer.  To these people, the idea of doing such work, likely very distant from their own upbringing, seems alien in itself.

The speakers on the show probably chose their professions.  They probably had a range of possibilities open to them, from family and educational options that showed what a wide range of things they might do.  Let’s scroll back a few hundred or a few thousand years.  What career options existed?  There is the military, of course, with its own hierarchy of leaders and followers–many of whom were likely drafted only as needed.  For the upper class, maybe a priesthood or a role with the nobility.  For those in the middle, maybe scribe or healer, maybe foreman or artisan (potters, weapons-makers, weavers, painters–a more skilled variety of labor).

Medieval mason's marks ensure the masons get paid for the stones they cut.

Medieval mason’s marks ensure the masons get paid for the stones they cut.

And for everybody else there was manual labor.  Whether they were farmers, masons or ditch-diggers, they were working hard all day, every day. It’s what they did, and what they expected to do.  In some societies, a good worker might learn the more skilled aspects of their job, or supervise others.  (And many people around the world today are living in these same circumstances, working physically demanding jobs all day, every day.)

For the fortunate, this job came with some sort of pay, possibly in food rather than wages, and the chance to go home to one’s family.  For many, the “job” was, in fact, slavery, and involved the bare minimum of care needed for survival and continued labor.

The speakers wondered why the ancients would have made such huge stones, then had to move them, rather than making many more smaller stones–but stone-cutting is a craft requiring education and dedication, while stone-moving is a combination of brute force and a clever transportation system.  If you have thousands of people at your disposal (perhaps literally), you train some of them, and for the rest, you hand them a rope and tell them where to walk.

How much work is it to build a pyramid?  A whole, heaping lot. Years or decades worth.  But when you have thousands of people who are doing their job, and are good at their job–whether that means cutting stone or hauling it–they can, and will get that job done, especially when they are motivated by immediate punishment or reward, or–and here’s another key to the “mystery” of how the ancients got stuff done–by religious conviction.

Those who believe that their work serves the cause of one or more deities are capable of great things indeed. They’re not building stone temples on a whim, but because the good of their entire society may depend upon how well they do it–the elegance of the design, the alignment with celestial markers, the beauty of the final product.

I wanted to slap the so-called experts every time they wondered how it was possible for someone with primitive tools and techniques to carve a symmetrical design.  These guys never tried it.  I have, actually.  Is it hard?  Sure:  it is both mentally and physically challenging.  If I dedicated the same amount of time every day to learning to carve stone that I have to my own profession I’d get pretty darn good at it, especially if I had started from childhood, under the care of a master-carver.  The ancients were experts, too.  They worked from an early age to learn all the tools and techniques available to them, and to apply those things to good advantage.

The really mind-blowing thing about those ancient monuments is how much our ancestors accomplished when they put their minds and backs into it.  I stand in awe of these accomplishments when I think of how hard it is to carve a stone or to shift even enough dirt or rocks to build a patio.  To build an entire step-pyramid, complete with elaborate carvings and painted murals is, indeed, nothing short of genius.

These ancient alien theorists underestimate so much about humanity. They underestimate the inspiration of religious faith to motivate both leaders and workers.  They underestimate the efforts of thousands of people, willingly or unwillingly working together on a large project.  They underestimate the ingenuity of such people to devise new techniques when they want to achieve something significant and have the time and willpower to work on it.  Most of all, they underestimate the value of simple and effective hard work.

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Defense Against the Dark Arts: Warding off Witchcraft

This month’s Archaeology magazine has some photos from Knole House in Kent showing a series of hatch marks carved into the floor beneath where the protestant King James I would have slept in the early 1600’s.  The marks are intended to protect the king from “witchcraft and demonic possession.” (you can read the article here.)  It got me thinking about the many ways that people tried to defend against such supernatural attacks.

Primrose illustration from an herbal text.

Primrose illustration from an herbal text.

In my own book Elisha Magus, Elisha finds the kitchen at the prince’s hunting lodge hanging with betony and primrose, two of many herbs which are said to prevent the incursion of witches.  Herbs like this would be hung around doorways or in barns to ward off witchcraft.  Hazelnuts in some circumstances were said to be proof against witchcraft as well, and could be thrown at witches to discourage them.

As in Knole House, mentioned above, houses often had defenses built in, most commonly around entrances. Knole House has its hatch marks near the fireplace as well, because witches were said to use chimneys, like some kind of nasty Santa.  Thresholds are popular places to conceal anti-witchcraft charms, often boxes or jars containing protective herbs and amulets, bits of bone or other relics.  One dwelling cave at Amman, Jordan, has the skull of a dog buried outside.

Iron has long been associated with the ability to ward off magic (faeries are said to recoil from it), and often figures in both household charms–including “lucky” horseshoes, and iron knives buried beneath the threshold–and in amulets carried on one’s person. Tim Powers uses nails driven into wood as a proof against some supernatural evils in his book The Stress of Her Regard, which, like many of Powers’ books, is deeply informed by 18th century beliefs about sorcery.

It also figures in another form of buried protection, the witch bottle.  These were a sort of curative when a victim had already been struck by an illness or misfortune attributed to witchcraft.  The  victim would place personal relics, like hair, nail trimmings, navel lint and urine, into a clay jar along with items said to be proof against witchcraft (iron nails, brass pins, minerals like brimstone), and bury the sealed jar upside down.  This amalgam of intimate leavings would attract the witch’s power, drawing it away from the victim and thus curing him.

It’s interesting that if you look up many of these items on-line, you are likely to find a string of websites associated with pagan religions and Wicca in particular, offering spells and recipes for creating your own charms.  (You can also purchase your witch bottle from Etsy or E-bay, but presumably you have to supply your own urine).  These contemporary individuals are using the same techniques of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period to defend themselves and their petitioners against Black Magic.  Even during the Middle Ages, there was a sense that some magic was good, and some was not, thus people had no qualms about seeking advice from one local practitioner to dislodge the Evil Eye of another one.

Official Church doctrine about magic swayed between poles, from similarly accepting this idea of White Magic, to condemning all magic as defying the Lord.  One of the most powerful weapons against magic of any kind is, of course, Holy Water–but running water itself has long been thought to prevent passage of certain forms of evil.

Salt is another preventative, and if you’ve ever thrown a pinch of salt over your shoulder, you know this belief persists in a custom many have forgotten.  Witches are said not to be able to eat salt, and that pinch of salt will ward off the devil.  Nowadays, I think most of us take fears about sorcery with more than a grain of salt.

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Finding a Balance: Cultural Appropriation and Under-representation

Writing fiction has lately become a bit of a minefield where, if you write about another culture, you risk charges of appropriation, and if you fail to include representatives of other cultures, then you are exclusionary.

I have always operated under the assumption that a respectful exploration of someone else’s culture is acceptable, possibly even praise-worthy, in the way that one would research mores and customs or try to learn some of the language before traveling to a foreign country.  How much easier it is to relate to other people if we have the opportunity to learn about them in a variety of ways, and offer ourselves as receptive and listening when we have the chance to learn from them directly.

As an author among other authors, I have seen that many of my fellow writers have a similar perspective.  We are fascinated by people, especially people different from ourselves–whether by gender, culture or experience.  Hence, books like Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward have been gratefully received by those who want their fiction to reflect the wider range of human possibility.

Yet if we don’t want to risk offending people, the safe course would be to write only from the perspective most similar to your own, and to avoid writing about or from the perspective of others.  At its most severe this would mean writing only about characters of your own age, culture, education, political bent, and socio-economic level.  That sounds a lot like. . . mainstream fiction of not very long ago, and is certainly a thread that persists when professors write books about professors, and authors about authors.  It also sounds like a very flat and boring landscape for writers and readers both, especially when authors representing minority perspectives continue to struggle with finding publication and readership.

In recent years, there has been a greater effort, certainly in the SF/F community, to encourage other voices and the awareness of these issues.  We are seeing more translations, more authors from different backgrounds represented at conventions, in anthologies and on award ballots, all of which are changes to be celebrated.  Do these developments go far enough?  Not yet, but, like most of human existence, it’s a work in progress as people develop a greater awareness of the experience of others.  And, perhaps more critically, a greater openness to that experience.

Sadly, that openness on behalf of the majority population often comes first, not from the authentic voices of representatives of other cultures, but from the representation of such individuals within a more comfortable and familiar context:  a work by a member of their own group that introduces these representatives and brings the other culture to their awareness.  Sometimes, such a work creates a movement, as when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book about black slaves, written by white woman Harriet Beecher Stowe inspired abolitionists.

Yeah, I know, many people of African descent are now rolling their eyes.  Is the book an accurate portrayal?  Not really.  It substitutes a different stereotype of African-Americans for the images prevalent in that time. (The book is also a product of its time, when the fictional presentation of character was handled differently from today.  If you don’t like this example, you can consider most books by Mary Doria Russell, Ursula LeGuin’s island peoples, Pearl S. Buck’s  The Good Earth, the cross-cultural thrillers of Martin Cruz Smith)  Is it a sincere attempt to reveal something others may not have seen, or may have avoided understanding?  Yes, absolutely.  Should authors become aware of and avoid perpetuating the stereotypes and misperceptions of other cultures?  Most definitely.

Should they be discouraged from using their art to explore and reveal what they are learning about others, in the fear that they might offend someone?  Hmmm. . . The sincere and open-minded author would seek every opportunity to create a convincing and well-rounded image of every character, including those from communities different from the author:  listen to the voices of that community, invest in the community (Buck lived in China for years, but not all of us have that opportunity), seek feedback from its members, take a respectful approach to your learning.

Writing, and other forms of artistic expression, are one of the ways that individuals process what they’re thinking and express ideas to be shared with others.  Is the author’s impression correct?  Is it suggesting something deep and human and engaging?  Does it encourage a different kind of thought and reaction in the mind of the reader?  Writing is a dialog.  The work poses ideas, questions, theories–the reader responds to them.  And the most moving, most disturbing, most beautiful ideas are often those that examine humanity in all of its forms and interactions.

It’s definitely a complicated, multi-layered issue, but I tend to come down in favor of art rather than fear.  In spite of the minefield, I still feel that representation and openness are important objectives, and I would like to see more support given to authors who are engaged in these goals, rather than to see authors vilified when they step outside their comfort zone–and try to bring their readers with them.

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The Arisia Convention and Interstitial Genders

If you have attended a science fiction and fantasy convention lately, especially here on the East Coast, you may have notice a fair number of people wearing pronoun ribbons.  Badge ribbons in general have been quite the rage, usually advertising one’s allegiance to a particular Worldcon bid or specialized Fandom (a movie, book, or tv show you love), and often featuring cryptic phrases only recognizable to those in the know.

These pronoun ribbons are a relatively new addition, and a more serious one.  In a world of ever-increasing awareness that gender is less fixed and obvious than we thought, pronoun ribbons (which announce one’s preferred pronoun reference) give some guidance to one’s fellow fans.  While she/her/hers is pretty clear, other options include ze/zer/zers (or “zhe”), and variations like Hi/hir etc.  They have also made ribbons suggesting the singular “they”  a convention adopted on Facebook, and in other places, but one which still makes my grammar-training twitchy.

The first time I remember encountering alternate pronouns, it was in a story by (I believe) Ursula LeGuin, and I found it simply confusing.  Now that I have (I hope) greater awareness of the issues involved, I find myself more aware of, and open to, their use. It seems like a recent phenomenon, and most day-to-day reference points suggest that gender is and has always been binary, but even the wiki page about gender-specific pronouns points out that alternatives have been suggested since the 19th century–though at that time, more to avoid referring to an unknown person as “he,” which was then the default.  On this blog, I tend to alternate, not always in a strict fashion, whether my dear reader is ‘she’ or ‘he’, and I hope this approach is acceptable.  (I suspect this is more disconcerting to men who identify with that gender than to others.)

Yet the new interest in such pronouns is linked more to individual’s gender-identification or lack thereof–or even the question of why it is important to be gender-identified at all.  It makes me think of the ranks of people with interstitial genders through the centuries.  In many cultures and folktales, hermaphrodites–individuals with characteristics of both male and female–have particular roles, often as mediators between the genders, or between humanity and the gods or spirits.  Sometimes, these individuals are referred to as “two-spirits” among Native American communities.

People are often uncomfortable around androgynous individuals whose gender is not made clear through their personal appearance.  I once met such an individual who worked as a private detective–an intriguing career choice, it seems to me.  Western culture tends to be more judgmental, as seen in the trial of Joan of Arc, one of whose major offenses was to wear men’s clothing (which, I should note, almost all of the women I know would be guilty of doing by 15th century standards.)

Individuals with third-gender or other non-binary self-definitions have always been with us, and pronoun badge ribbons are the latest way to push for a more open definition of humanity, less bound to binary gender.  I am proud to be part of the fandom community, which encourages exactly this kind of openness.  And now I am more curious than ever to rediscover the stories of inter-sexed individuals in mythology and culture as another way to invite conversation and acceptance.  What stories do you know?


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The Year of the (dead) Goat: astrology and inner Asian sports

Chinese Astrology follows a twelve-year cycle of animals who represent the character of the year ahead, and may have an influence over individuals, based on their own astrological animal, (and all kinds of other factors).  The Wall Street Journal welcomed the Year of the Goat by talking about the Goat Simulator game, which apparently is all the rage, and involves the player controlling a goat avatar that, as the WSJ puts it, “rampages all over town.”

When I saw the image of this goat flying through the air, what it brought to mind was the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi.  We in America claim baseball, and maybe American football as national pastimes, pursuits in which highly trained athletes take a rigidly structured field to win points based on their manipulation of a small ball.  Buzkashi, literally translated to “goat grabbing” is a whole other thing entirely.

It may have been the precursor to that most upper crust of sports, polo, in which riders on specially trained mounts gallop along the field, swinging long mallets to strike a ball toward the opposing team’s goal.  However, in Buzkashi, variations of which are found throughout the steppes of inner Asia, instead of having a ball for a target, and a long stick to strike it with, the riders compete for control over the carcass of a goat.  It takes an expert rider to snatch the goat, balance it on a saddle and ride for the win.  The Afghanistan Online website has an explanation and two variations of the game, one requiring the rider simply to escape the other riders with his grizzly prize, the other in which the rider must carry the goat out and around a marker then return to a target zone in order to score (see, touchdown–just like football, only smellier).

Here in New England, people are all excited about the Super Bowl, and about the so-called “inflategate” scandal, in which the Patriots are suspected of using underinflated footballs.  I suspect in Buzkashi, it is when your goat gets, er, over-inflated, that things become especially exciting, given that a traditional game might have lasted several days.

I first learned of the game during my research into Mongolia, suspected to be its place of origin, when my sister asked me to help her make a pseudo-goat for the purpose of playing the game with her horse-minded recreationist friends at a Mongolian-themed equestrian event for the Society for Creative Anachronism.  The tricky bit in making a fake goat is getting it to have enough structural integrity. An underinflated goat would be very difficult to grab and ride with, so it needed to have some sort of stiffening inside to remain sufficiently rigid.  We used a complete goat, while the Afghan website above specifies a headless one.  That would eliminate a couple of useful handles and no doubt elevates the game to a more professional level.

The wikipedia article on Buzkashi includes some photos, and also a variety of film and book references, where you can learn more about it. However, if you prefer to celebrate the Year of the Goat in the Chinese fashion, you can go for the firecrackers and lion dancers, and leave the dead goat to others to enjoy.

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GalaxyQuest and the Everyday Hero

I’d been wanting to watch “GalaxyQuest” again after quite a long time, and finally made the chance last night.  Yes, it’s just as much campy Trekkie fun as it was before, but this time, I was paying attention in a different way, because the film not only pokes some fun at fandom, it also speaks to some very real truths about being an entertainer, whether you are an actor (as they are in the film) or a novelist.

GalaxyQuest inspirational poster

GalaxyQuest inspirational poster

Actually, the first point applies whether you are an entertainer or just about any kind of professional grown-up, and that’s Imposter Syndrome.  This is when you find yourself in your public role, say signing autographs at a convention, and keep thinking that someday, someone will find out your secret:  you’re really just an ordinary guy, not special at all.  Not worthy of all this attention, not worthy of that promotion.

It’s easy to see how this feeling of being an imposter could come about in an area like writing, where most of us are having a great time as authors, and still suffering from the secret guilt of being paid to do what we love and share it with others.  However, the more people I talk to in various walks of life, the more I think almost everyone suffers from this kind of anxiety, from teachers who feel inadequate to the task of leading a high school class, to software developers who are keeping just one manual ahead of their job’s technical requirements.  And most of these professionals are not called on, as the actor-heroes of “GalaxyQuest” are to save an entire race of aliens who believe they are heroes.

And this leads me to point two, that of the everyday hero.  At the start of the film, Tim Allen’s character is treated like a hero, in spite of just being an actor, and at the end, he has become heroic through his actions.  He has become worthy and overcome his imposter syndrome.  Cool.  But what about those crazy aliens who believed in him?

They stand in for the hope of every entertainer, every author who crafts a work of heroic fiction, and that is to inspire others to greatness.  Entertainment is fun, sure, just as the humorous aspects of the film are laugh-out-loud funny, but the greatest entertainment holds higher ambitions.  While there are many authors who read someone else’s disappointing book and thought “I could do that,” I think the real source of the drive to create is in reading the kind of work that gives you something to aspire to–“I *could* write a better book than the crummy one, but what I want is to write a book as excellent as the best.”

And these great works have the potential to inspire the greatness of their readers.  The movie aliens had lost their way, until they found their inspiration, a model for a new approach to life, in the television series Tim Allen starred in.  In the same way, when someone reads a great book, he or she invests in the characters, and wants to be like them.  When they close the cover, some of that aspiration lingers, encouraging the reader to a new level of strength and courage, offering models of heroic behavior that may lead that reader to strive for things they didn’t know were possible, just as Tim Allen begins the film as an imposter, and becomes a hero, when he sees the potential for heroism reflected in the brave aliens he once inspired.


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