When Urania was young/ All thought her heavenly/ With age her eyes grow larger/ But her form unmaidenly

Monday, June 20, 2005

Last Word on Last Words

Okay, maybe that's a false promise, since I never completely finish noodling with topics, and Candy's last comment makes me want to launch into this huge analysis of the non-happy endings of Grimms' and other non-English variants of the fairy tales (and E.T.A. Hoffmann), but instead I wanted to drop a very short note about how happy endings in a couple of Oscar Wilde plays, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest.

In LWF, the final denouement's function, aside from giving us a brief moment of concern on the Lady's behalf that Mrs. Erlynne has spilled the beans, essentially erases nearly all of the sting from Erlynne's earlier sacrifice, which deflates the drama but makes the ending more "happy." Why would Wilde do that, besides to produce a pleasant echo of the not-miserable fate of the lovely Becky Sharp? It not only wouldn't be required in a conventional plot (Erlynne's cynical pairing is one of convenience, not the central love interest), but, as noted above, actually works against the classical balance of the plot. My tentative answer: it intentionally play against the moralism that's mocked throughout the play by making sacrifice-for-the-greater-good largely unnecessary, but also to defuse any lingering regrets the playgoer may have on Mrs. Erlynne's behalf. It eliminates the pathos.

In the same way, the "happy" ending of IBE, with both insipid-but-witty couples happily paired up is not the resolution of the "plot," such as it is, but a way to ensure nothing of any emotional note interferes with the appreciation of Wilde's wit. We don't have much invested in these people - and that's not because Wilde couldn't pluck those strings when so inclined (See: "The Happy Prince") We don't sigh, "Ahh," at the promised wedding beels at the end of IBE, we leave with a grin or a smirk. The happy ending is simply the absence of a jarring unhappy ending or an unsettling ambiguity.

Next genre noodling: against plot and why overheard conversations always sound stupid.

Monday, June 13, 2005

On Fantasy Endings

Okay, because it makes me nervous, I can no longer use the b-word and Candy in the same paragraph. Reason: Candy was the name of my childhood pet, a (female) sheltie, who was sweet and dumb and it's giving me unresolved cognitive sevenths. Henceforth, Candy is Just Smart.

Anyway, hope this counts as an SB entry, since it did start back when.

Candy said, "p.s. I hereby modify my statement about fantasy/SF endings to include a caveat about some cyberpunk novels and Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury short stories.... but by and large they do require the Evil Empire to be vanquished."

Science fiction is much more wildly varied than that, of course - thinking about classics by John Brunner and Ursula Le Guin but even Space Opera - the terrific Hooded Swan series by Brian Stapleford which ended with the death of (some of) the bad guys, but there was nothing at stake other than the feelings of a race, and the resolving cadences were all about loneliness. Being able to opt for upbeat, downbeat, or ambiguous endings (despite commercial pressures - the lowest-common-denominator reason why sf movies tend to be as Candy describes, but not all the books) is a fandamental as whether Molly Bloom says "Yes" or "No."

The saving-the-world resolution in fantasy is stronger, especially on the brainless and derivative mass market side - the Terry Brooks and so on. The Harlequins of the genre. I'd say there are actually four or so common resolutions in even this: saving the world, saving the kingdom, rescuing a damsel or someone else in distress, personal attainment. But Candy is right that the Good Will Out (through marvellous gifts, or destiny (true enough, considering the author is the Fates), or just because it's Good) is as contricting and artificial and false as the required happy-pair ending of a romance. Perhpas even more so, because the Good Will Out is more sweeping and wrong than Two People Can be Happy.

The things is that this is not what happens even in the precursors of the fantasy genre, things like the Arthurian romances, where the Arthur ends up dead and the kingdom sundered - or the legend of Robin Hood, where the hero dies from being overbled by a treacherous nun.

The two widest read fantasy classics demonstrate what happens with the save-the-world fantasy. In the last volume of Narnia, the exact opposite happens: the world is not saved; the forces of good lose the last battle. And then God rather gruesomely destroys the entire universe of Narnia, and the Good (and the heroes get killed by a freak accident in our world) get to be in Heaven. Now, it's true the C.S. Lewis had Christian eschatology on which to rely - but that's the point. Once you put in magic or wonderous creatures or alternate sword-swinging universes, you filfilled the single generic obligation of fantasy. (It's too depressing to contemplate whether the existence of this kind of wonder and what it implies about the beauty and possibilities of the world represents a more fundamentally childish lie than the romance myth, so let's not talk about that.) The point is that you don't have to go to Jurgen or Gormenghast or Silverlock to find a fundamental freedom to represent mainspring of the organization of the world in any number of ways.

Which brings us to the other classic, The Lord of the Rings, accidental progenitor of most of the Save the World extruded fantasy product. Cut and dried: the great quest is successful and Sauron is detroyed; the Rightful King restored with his elven bride at his side; and in the wake of a magic-assisted harvest, hobbits get to eat a lot.

But it's not quite like that: that's why there are two full chapters after the happy resolution (even more after the climactic battle): The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens. On one level, Scouring/Shire is another battle piece, with the subtext that even the peace of the insignificant Shire must be paid for with blood. To me, though, what's significant is that ruined Shire is our world, as interpreted by the long English tradition stretching back to Blake and his "dark Satanic (Sarumanic) mills." After the destruction of the Ring, the voice of the Nazgul are never heard again in that age of the world. In ours, of course, you can pick them up on any of the major networks. This is the point - not that Aragorn won, but that we subsequently lost.

And The Grey Havens - a lesson about the aftermath of heroism as bleak but not as heartless as another fantasy precursor, the fate of Jason long after the voyage of the Argonaut - his head crushed by a timber of his rotting boat, as he sat in it contemplating his then-distant adventures.

Monday, June 06, 2005

More Romance: That Loving the Hero Thing

I had originally intended to discuss fantasy and sf genre endings in response to the comment by the ever smart but perhaps not entirely bitchy Candy that they required the saving of the world, but then I intended to do that on any of the 12 non Smart Bitch days between then and now. So, instead, as a nonromance reader, I'm stretching for something more relevant.

In a long ride down from Philadelphia, the ever smart and impressively bitchy Beth explained about the centrality of the hero in Romance, and I saw from last week that wanting the hero, at least in some literary way, seemed to be the engine that made the inevitable happy and paired resolution so satisfying the romance readers. Leaving work at an ungodly hour tonight, it suddenly occurred to me that only twice do I remember feeling something like that for a female character, and in neither case was it the protagonist, and in both cases I'm probably pretty whacked.

It's so easy to skim past the usual literary "heroine," especially if you don't have ready access to insulin. All the filling-aching Dorotheas and Amelias and Sophias by male authors - man, is that what they REALLY wanted in a girl? And women writers? Another earnest bluestocking of a Dorothea? The Cathy of the Heights who seemed like yet another drama queen of the high school green room. Emma Woodhouse, god forbid?

True, I wanted Elizabeth Barrett, but I wanted her as a sister, or a roommate, or a friend's amusing wife. And I really wanted Becky Sharp around, especially if I could convince her I was thoroughly gay and therefore an ally rather than prey (and liked that she appreciated Dobbin). When I think about it, I could have loved Anne Elliot, although it didn't occur to me at the time.

But, okay, there were two and both whacked. The first was Sophie from War and Peace. Underappreciated, lost her final play for Nicholas and had the condescending Natasha remark that she really was more like a cat, attached to the family not in love, content to be the maiden aunt and general factotum. I wanted to slap Natasha - just because Sophie could do that, doesn't mean that's what she was supposed to do. Amid the monstrous egos and moral self-importance of all the other characters, she seemed so sane, so measured. However, when I let slip this sentiment among my Russian-novel-mad friends in college, it was clear this was an, ahem, unorthodox reaction. But the novel was set in traditional upper class Russian society; she was virtuous - that meant NO SEX AT ALL, EVER. Evereverever. She NEVER got to. I dunno why that seems so bad. Well, yes, I do. Anyway, lustrous dark hair and a pale complexion was appealing.

The other was even more whacked - a woman named Eluned, from a historical romance by the aforementioned Beth. Okay, get this: that's the heroine's MOTHER. A ruthless Welsh nationalist widow in a lonely castle. I just wanted to take her in my arms, tut to her that it didn't have to be all guttural consonants in her life, and, c'mon let me buy you a vowel, let's sell the depreciating real estate and move to a Marina del Ray condo. Plenty of more productive use for your ruthlessness in SoCal, although it won't be a pushover. The food's better too, sushi and guacamole and for God's sake chocolate being all undiscovered in wedieval Wales. Ah well - Eluned is fictional and all I got was inadvertantly flummoxing the author. Not that I deprecate that little benefit.

Now, it's true if I had read Tolkien when I was like 14 instead of 20, Eowyn (also underappreciated - Like Sophie and Eluned. What am I - a bargain hunter?) might have snared me, especially in the great set piece when she is facing down the Nazgul. Or Goth, from The Witches of Karres, who WAS 14, and therefore much more age appropriate for me than for the novel's protag. But, in fictional loves as in the real, timing is everything.

Do I speak for my sex on this? I dunno: it's really creepy to think of pimple-faced boys getting all moony about Dejah Thoris or something, but pimple-faced boys are creepy, speaking in the first person but past tense. However, I suspect the usual Burroughs cover, with Dejah modelling the latest in Nearly-Nonexistentwear, puts any such impulse firmly into the category that encompasses centerfolds and the heroines of Penthouse letters.