Fantasy is More Than Just Castles and Dragons

The BBC has run an article by Jane Ciabattari that examines the relationship between George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga and the works of J. R. R. Tolkein. It’s a decent read, though I took issue with several paragraphs toward the end:

By definition, fantasy should be a limitless genre of unbounded imagination. Isn’t it time we came up with something new?

There are two reasons for this. To start with, it’s about sequels. In the age of algorithm-assisted online shopping and ‘if you like that, you’ll like this’ recommendations, the gatekeepers at the biggest publishing companies tend to choose the tried-and-true over the quirky or original. The five novels in Martin’s series to date have topped bestseller lists and sold more than 15 million copies in all.

And secondly, the familiar prevails. Readers often gravitate toward the childhood obsessions they love, which include games like Dungeons and Dragons and books involving swordplay and witchery.  And the swords-and-dragons tale works in any century, because of commonalities across Western history.

It’s a shame that Ciabattari failed to acknowledge that there are a number of contemporary fantasy authors who avoid the stereotypical medieval setting. For example:

  • Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy is set in the Aztec Empire;
  • Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in a world that’s inspired by the medieval Middle East;
  • N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy and the Dreamblood series are both set in unique universes that are influenced by a wide range of cultures;
  • Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in 19th century England.

These books might not be mega-bestsellers like GoT or LoTR, but that doesn’t mean they’re obscure. They were all published by big-name publishers, and many of them won prestigious awards. The genre isn’t quite as homogenous as Ciabattari seems to believe, and it’s unfortunate that she chose to resort to sweeping generalizations.

New project!

As many of you know, I’m something of a Westminster nerd, and I spend a lot of time blah-blah-blahing about the British constitution. Until now, I’ve been content to post that stuff here along with my thoughts on Egyptology, video games, writing, etc., but from now on, it will appear on a separate blog entitled A Venerable Puzzle.

Now you may be asking yourselves, “why the hell is Jason creating a separate blog when he can barely be bothered to update this one in a timely fashion?” The answer is that I want to make this place less of a gallimaufry, and of all the things I like to pontificate about, the British constitution seemed the best candidate for a spin-off.

Anyway, if you like it when I natter on about Britain, check out my new site. There’s a fabulous post on the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 waiting for you there. :)

John Baines

I just learned that John Baines retired at the end of last year. Baines was Professor of Egyptology at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and he’s something of a living legend in the Egyptological community. A professor by 30, he went on to have a distinguished scholarly career, as his list of publications vividly demonstrates.

Baines’ work has been invaluable to me over the years. He co-authored The Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt, which was one of the first scholarly books about Egypt that I ever owned. Although it’s outdated in places, it still provides a solid overview of Egyptian civilization, and it’s a must have for any Egyptophile (though, sadly, it seems to be out of print). Baines has also made a major contribution to the study of literacy in ancient Egypt, and his 1983 article on the subject is still widely cited. His most recent book is about elite culture, and I plan to read it in the near future.

Baines is also a really nice guy. Many years ago, I emailed him with some questions about Egypt. I was so young that I didn’t have my own email address, and I had to send it using my mom’s account (and I think I’ve just dated myself!). I can only vaguely remember the questions; I believe I asked him something about priestly celibacy and Egypt in the Greco-Roman period. But he wrote back with detailed, helpful answers, and I’ve always appreciated his willingness to answer questions from a random American kid.

The Egyptians would have called Baines “a good scribe and an exceedingly wise man,” and his successor will have some big shoes to fill. I hope he has a long and happy retirement, and with any luck, we’ll be reading his work for many years to come.

Scary Stories

If you’re a child of the 80s, you probably remember the Scary Stories trilogy by Alvin Schwartz. The stories themselves were fairly tame, and it was Stephen Gammell’s illustrations that really made the books memorable. When I was a third grader, those nightmarish landscapes and grotesque figures were absolutely terrifying (the illustrations for “The Haunted House,” “The Dream,” and “Someone Fell from Aloft” were particularly spooky), and they’re still pretty damn unsettling 20 years later.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first Scary Stories book, HarperCollins commissioned new artwork by Brett Helquist. The result is…underwhelming to say the least. Helquist is a fine artist, but his work lacks the distinctive horror of Gammell’s. Adventures in Poor Taste has a nice piece that compares and contrasts the two sets of illustrations, so you can see for yourselves just how different they are.

I have no idea why HarperCollins decided to tamper with something so iconic. The cynic in me wonders if it isn’t a deliberate attempt to sanitize the books (they were, after all, frequently challenged by outraged parents who wanted to keep them out of school libraries). Helquist’s work is safe and anodyne, and I doubt it will stick in people’s minds like Gammell’s did.

I’m glad I kept my copies of the original editions!

King Charles the Martyr?

In some quarters, yesterday was considered the feast of King Charles the Martyr, better known to most people as Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Charles probably had one of the unhappiest reigns of any English monarch. A strong believer in the Divine Right of Kings, he was almost constantly at loggerheads with Parliament, and he sought to rule as an absolute monarch. The final straw was when he tried to force Anglicanism on Scotland, resulting in the Bishops’ Wars, which served as a prelude to the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651.

A right royal prat

After Sir Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As many of you know, Charles was ultimately defeated, put on trial, and executed. But of course the monarchy was eventually restored, and in 1660, the Convocations of Canterbury and York decided that the day of Charles’ execution should be commemorated with a special service in the Book of Common Prayer. The service was subsequently annexed to the Prayer Book by a royal warrant of Charles II along with the services commemorating the Gunpowder Plot and the restoration of the monarchy.1

The service itself was a piece of ecclesiastical masochism filled to the brim with handwringing over the evils of executing a divinely anointed sovereign. By the mid-nineteenth century, this attitude seemed increasingly out-of-date, and Queen Victoria removed it from the Prayer Book in 1859 at the request of both Houses of Parliament along with the Gunpowder Plot and Restoration services.2

Nowadays, the cult of King Charles the Martyr has largely faded from public view, though he still appears in the Calendar of Common Worship, the book of ‘alternative’ services that has replaced the Book of Common Prayer in many Church of England parishes. Although some Anglo-Catholics bewail the downgrading, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is an aberration best left in the seventeenth century.

One of the justifications for his continued commemoration is that he was a martyr for Anglicanism. Anglo-Catholics often paint him as a stalwart defender of episcopacy and Catholic tradition in the face of militant Presbyterianism.3 Now I have no problem with episcopacy (I am, after all, an Episcopalian!) or Catholic tradition, but I’m not sure they’re more important than the liberties of Charles’ subjects. This was a man who had no problem imprisoning people without trial and imposing illegal taxes, and his behavior was seen as problematic even by seventeenth-century standards.

I’ve heard defenders of Charles try to get around his failings by pointing out that nobody’s perfect, and just because a person has flaws doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of veneration by the faithful. But by the same token, just because someone displays certain virtues doesn’t mean they should be venerated either. It’s ultimately a question of balance, and in the final analysis, Charles seems rather wanting.

Introducing Woseribre Senebkay

The list of pharaohs has just gotten a bit longer. The University of Pennsylvania has uncovered the tomb of a pharaoh named Woseribre Senebkay, who apparently ruled as part of a previously unknown dynasty based out of Abydos. This news has made it into the mainstream media, but I highly recommend reading the official Penn Museum announcement. A lot of the mainstream coverage has been sort of silly (such as this gem from the Daily Pennsylvanian: “Most tombs have unadorned walls, stripped of their decorations by ancient plunderers”.4).

As is so often the case, the tomb was plundered in antiquity, so there isn’t a lot of bling left. Poor Senebkay even suffered the indignity of having his mummy torn apart by grave robbers. Judging from the remains of his canopic chest (which had the name of a previous royal owner covered over with gilding!), it seems that his burial may have featured a lot of ‘recycled’ material.

Senebkay reigned c. 1650 BCE during a time scholars call Second Intermediate Period. The SIP was a time of political fragmentation and disorder, and we don’t really have a firm grasp of the chronology. Until now, Senebkay was pretty much unknown to history, though the Turin King List contains two fragmentary references to kings with similar throne names.

Ratty bits of history.

The Turin King List. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although Senebkay styled himself ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ in his tomb, he was probably little more than a local potentate whose domain was limited to Abydos and its environs. In his time, the Delta was under the control of foreign kings who belonged to a group called the Hyksos (a word that’s derived from the Egyptian Ḥq3-ḫ3st, or ‘Rulers of Foreign Lands’), while Thebes was ruled by a dynasty that would eventually expel the Hyksos and reunify Egypt. The presence of reused material suggests that he might have been comparatively poor, though it’s also possible that he simply died before he had time to acquire his own funerary equipment.

This discovery just goes to show that, despite all the advances that Egyptology has made over the past 200 years, there are still gaping lacunae in our understanding of Egyptian history.

The Parliament Acts and the EU Referendum Bill

A while back, David Cameron told his backbenchers that he was prepared to use the Parliament Acts on the European Union (Referendum) Bill. Although this announcement won plaudits from many Tory MPs, using the Parliament Acts to get the bill onto the statute book will be highly problematic.

The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 allow for laws to be made without the consent of the House of Lords in certain circumstances. In order to qualify, a bill must be rejected by the Lords in two successive sessions of Parliament, and at least a year has to elapse between the bill’s second reading in the Commons during the first session and its third reading by the Commons during the second session (yeah, it’s complicated). Use of the Parliament Acts is incredibly rare–they’ve only been used seven times since 1911 (the last time was in 2004 when the Blair government used them to get the Hunting Act onto the statute book).

By JLogan (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Time is not on the European Union (Referendum) Bill’s side. It’s currently in the House of Lords, where a second reading debate has been scheduled for January 10. If it receives a second reading (and it almost certainly will–the Lords rarely reject bills outright), convention dictates that at least two weeks should elapse between second reading and the start of committee stage in order to give peers plenty of time to table amendments. Committee might take a while (the Lords consider every amendment, and the bill’s opponents will likely table a lot of them to slow things down), and another fortnight will have to elapse between the end of committee stage and report stage. Then three days have to elapse between the end of report and third reading/passage.

However, there’s a very important catch: if the Lords amend the bill (which seems likely, given the number of Europhile peers), the bill will have to return to the Commons so they can vote on the Lords’ amendments. But since the bill is a private member’s bill rather than a government bill, the amendments can only be considered on certain Fridays, the last of which is February 28. I highly doubt that the Lords will be finished by then–I suspect that an alliance of Labour and Europhile peers will do everything they can to prolong the proceedings (and unlike our Senate, there’s no “nuclear option” to curtail debate!). If the Commons can’t find the time to consider the Lords amendments, the bill will automatically fall when Parliament is prorogued ahead of the State Opening of Parliament in May.

David Cameron seems to think that, if the European Union (Referendum) Bill is reintroduced in the next session, the Parliament Acts can be used to force it onto the statute books. But as I mentioned earlier, the Parliament Acts can only be used if a bill has been rejected in two successive sessions of Parliament. Section 2(3) of the Parliament Act 1911 states that “A Bill shall be deemed to be rejected by the House of Lords if it is not passed by the House of Lords either without amendment or with such amendments only as may be agreed to by both Houses.” But it’s not clear if that would apply in a situation where the Commons didn’t even consider the Lords’ amendments due to procedural restrictions. Calling that a “rejection” by the Lords would seem rather perverse!

This is uncharted territory. In the past, the Parliament Acts have only been used for government bills, so finding legislative time was never an issue. Ultimately, it will be up to Speaker John Bercow to decide whether or not the Parliament Acts can apply.

There’s another potential catch: even if a bill meets the requirements of the Parliament Acts, the Commons can decline to present it for Royal Assent.5 This has never happened before, so it’s not clear how this discretion would be exercised in practice. In the past, it’s been a moot point since the Parliament Acts have only been used for government bills, and the government obviously has a majority in the Commons. But Cameron is in a coalition, and his Liberal Democrat partners are strongly Europhile. If they were to join forces with Labour, they could outvote the Tories and prevent the bill from being presented for Royal Assent under the Parliament Acts.

I suspect that Cameron would personally prefer to let the European Union (Referendum) Bill die out rather than open an enormous can of worms by invoking the Parliament Acts. But Europe continues to be a festering boil on the body of the Conservative Party, and he might decide that it’s best to lance it once and for all, even if it results in a lot of sturm und drang.


There’s another potential catch as well.


The Telegraph’s World War I Archive

The Telegraph is doing something cool to mark the centenary of World War I. They are republishing every issue of the Telegraph that came out between January 1, 1914 and December 31, 1918.

I highly recommend checking it out, even if you’re not a WWI buff. There’s a wealth of fascinating material in the January 1 issue alone, from coverage of Archduchess Isabella of Austria’s unprecedented decision to become a nurse6 to the continued fallout from the Kikuyu Controversy7

However, hindsight has made the editorial rather poignant:

Happily, our foreign relations are such as to cause no sort of uneasiness, and there has been a steady improvement in the tone and temper of our intercourse with Germany. Everyone will hope that the New Year may pass without the outbreak of further trouble in the Near East.

Doctor Who: “The Time of the Doctor”

It’s official: there’s a new Doctor in town. Matt Smith has handed the TARDIS keys to Peter Capaldi in the much-balyhooed Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor.” As a newcomer to the Whoniverse, this was the first time I’d actually seen a regeneration in ‘real time’ as opposed to watching it several years later on Netflix, and I thought the whole thing was something of a mixed bag.

Basically, a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Doctor’s enemies descended on Trenzalore so they could besiege him in a town called ‘Christmas’ that looks like it was built from Department 56 houses. Meanwhile, the Time Lords (who were revealed to be trapped in a pocket dimension in the 50th anniversary special), are trying to make a comeback by sending messages through the cracks in the universe that first appeared in series 5. The message is simply “Doctor Who?”; if the Doctor responds by telling them his real name, his fellow Time Lords will know they’ve found the right universe and burst in like the Kool-Aid Man.

The Doctor knows that, if he allows the Time Lords to return, it will simply reignite the Time War. At the same time, he’s determined to protect the people of Christmas and their cutesy, overpriced ceramic houses. He ends up spending 300 years defending Trenzalore, and he’s convinced that he’s finally going to bite the bullet since Time Lords are limited to thirteen incarnations8.

Obviously, the BBC is not going to let a technicality like that get in the way of such a lucrative franchise, so it was pretty much a given that they’d find some way around the regeneration limit. Unfortunately, their solution was somewhat hamfisted: the Doctor’s companion, Clara, talked to the Time Lords through the crack-in-the-universe and begged them to help him, saying that “the Doctor” was his name for all intents and purposes. This somehow convinces them to deliver a burst of extra regeneration energy through the crack, which the Doctor uses to slaughter the Daleks who are about to destroy Christmas. It all seemed too convenient, and if they could deliver the regeneration energy, I don’t know why they didn’t just break through then and there.

The pacing of “The Time of the Doctor” also felt rushed. The assembly of the Doctor’s enemies never really had a chance to feel menacing since it pretty much came out of the blue9and most of the enemies only got cameos. And while Steven Moffat did his best to wrap up existing plot threads, most of that material seemed better suited to a behind-the-scenes feature rather than an episode.

The episode did do a nice job of letting Matt Smith show off his acting chops. Although Eleven has never been my favorite Doctor (I’m a Ten man, myself), Smith is an excellent actor who arguably brought more nuance to the role than any of his predecessors (at least as far as the revived series is concerned–I haven’t seen any of the pre-2005 stuff). Smith was especially good at playing the aged Doctor after 300 years on Trenzalore. Done wrong, it could have degenerated into farce, but Smith managed to capture an old man’s physicality remarkably well.

I also loved Eleven’s final soliloquy. Capturing the essence of an entire character in a single piece of dialogue is no mean feat, yet Moffat managed to write a fitting tribute to Eleven. It had an understated poignance that stood in marked contrast to the overwrought melodrama of Ten’s sendoff.

Brief as it was, Karen Gillan’s cameo as Amy Pond also deserves a mention. The stories of Eleven and Amy were uniquely intertwined, so it was fitting that he should share his final moments with her, even if she was just a figment of his imagination.

Sadly, it will be a while before we get to see what Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is like. They haven’t even started filming series 8 yet, so we might have to wait until Fall of 2014 for new episodes. Damn you, British brevity!


Once Upon a Time: “Going Home”

After weeks of tedious Neverland episodes, Once Upon a Time has finally emerged from the doldrums. Last Sunday’s mid-season finale, “Going Home,” closed the book on the Peter Pan storyline and sent the plot off in new and unexpected directions.

At the end of the previous episode, Pan!Henry stole The Curse from Regina in a bid to turn Storybrooke into the new Neverland. I’d been wondering how he was going to cast it since it has a rather nasty material component (the heart of the thing you love most). As far as I can tell, Pan never loved anyone except himself, and ripping out his own heart to cast The Curse would be rather counterproductive.

But, as Pan!Henry helpfully explains to Felix, love isn’t just romance or a familial bond. It can also be loyal friendship, and Felix has always been devoted to Pan. Sadly, Pan repays this loyalty by ripping out Felix’s heart and crushing it to dust before dropping it into the magic wishing well along with the other ingredients for The Curse. Great clouds of green smoke start billowing out of the well, letting us know that something wicked is coming to Storybrooke.

Naturally, the only way to stop The Curse is with the aid of a magical MacGuffin: the wand of the never-before-mentioned ‘Black Fairy.’  Apparently, the Blue Fairy/Mother Superior had it stashed in the convent, and Hook, Charming, Neal, and Tinkerbell rush off to find it. They go to the chapel, where the Blue Fairy is apparently lying in state after being killed in the previous episode, only to run into Pan’s shadow. There’s a CGI fight and Tinkerbell ends up trapping the shadow in Neal’s coconut nightlight thingy before throwing it onto a very conveniently located fire. Once the shadow is dead, the Blue Fairy springs back to life and hands over the wand. Oddly enough, the other townspeople seem pretty blase about her sudden revivification.

Fun fact: evil magical shadows can't penetrate wooden pews.

Photo Credit: ABC/Jack Rowand

Stopping The Curse will also require the destruction of the scroll on which it was written. In order to get it, the townspeople decide to pull a reverse Freaky Friday and switch Pan and Henry back into their proper bodies. As a precaution, Rumple decides to slap Greg and Tamara’s (remember them?) anti-magic bracelet on Pan’s arm so that he’ll be powerless when he returns to his body.

The body-switch spell works perfectly, but alas, Rumple forgot that Pan was Greg and Tamara’s boss, so the cuff doesn’t work on him. Pan promptly transfers the cuff to Rumple’s arm, divesting the Dark One of all his tricks. Pan also takes the opportunity to rub salt into the wound by telling his son that he never loved him, not even for a moment. Ouch. He leaves Rumple on the floor, confident that his father will revert to his cowardly nature now that he can’t hide behind his magic.

I really like the following scene where Rumple struggles to get the cuff off. For a moment, it looks like he might hack off his hand with a cutlass, which is a nice little callback to how he deliberately injured himself in order to get out of fighting in the Ogre Wars.

Meanwhile, Henry is reunited with his body and has a nice group hug with his family. Regina takes The Curse and immediately collapses. When she wakes up, Pan arrives and freezes everyone as he tries to figure out who to kill first. But he’s stopped by Rumple (who didn’t cut off his hand after all), who reminds Pan that he isn’t the only one with a detachable shadow. Rumple’s shadow returns with the Dark One dagger that Rumple hid when he was in Neverland, which Rumple uses to skewer his dad.. Pan transforms back into a middle-aged man, and there’s a sweet little moment as Rumple kisses his dad right before they poof away in a cloud of smoke. It’s hard to believe that Rumple is actually gone for good when a tertiary character like the Blue Fairy didn’t even stay dead for an entire episode, but it was still a very touching scene. It was also a nice way for the writers to fulfill the longstanding prophecy that “the boy” would be Rumple’s undoing.

The rest of the episode is pretty much a conga line of sadness. Regina says that the only way to save everyone from The Curse is to transport them back to the Enchanted Forest, but Henry, having been born in the Land Without Magic, won’t be able to come, though Emma can stay with him because she’s the Savior. As always, magic comes with a price, and Regina’s price is that she’ll never be able to see her beloved son again. Emma and Henry will also lose all their memories of Storybrooke and its inhabitants.

With Green Clouds of Doom rushing across town, Henry and Emma say their goodbyes, and I loved how Henry finally told Regina that he was wrong about her: she wasn’t a villain after all, and he loved her. As a final gift to Emma and Henry, Regina gives them false memories of a happy life together, one where Emma never gave Henry up for adoption. Regina re-casts The Curse to send everyone back to the Enchanted Forest, and her Purple Clouds of Doom envelop everyone just as Emma and Henry cross the town line in her trusty yellow Beetle.

We then jump ahead a year and see Emma and Henry going about their usual morning routine in New York City. It’s all very happy and domestic, but then there’s a knock at the door. When Emma goes to answer it, there’s a hunky pirate on her doorstep who breathlessly tells her that her parents are in trouble. She’s like “WTF?” and Hook tries to make her remember using True Love’s Kiss (TM), but she responds by kneeing him in his treasure chest before slamming the door in his stubbly face.

I swear I don't just watch the show for the eye candy.

Gratuitous Captain Hook pic. You’re welcome. Photo Credit: ABC/Jack Rowand

Although there were some uneven moments (Felix being the thing that Pan loved most seemed like a bit of an asspull, as did the Black Fairy’s wand) and the repeated bits about hope and happy endings got a bit saccharine, the final moments more than make up for those deficiencies. Even though we viewers know that the Storybrookers aren’t saying goodbye for realz (this is a mid-season finale, not a series finale!), the scenes between Rumple and Pan and Regina, Emma, and Henry still tugged at the heartstrings. I also liked how the episode contributed to Rumple and Regina’s character development. Regina finally shed her villain persona, while Rumple showed once and for all that he’s not a coward.

The only bad news is that the show is on hiatus until the spring premiere on March 9. The promos suggest that the Wicked Witch of the West will become the new Big Bad. It will be interesting to see her as a villain again after Gregory Maguire rehabilitated her in Wicked.